The Glass Menagerie
Tennessee Williams's "The Glass Menagerie," about family ties that bind to a painful degree, makes for compelling drama without innovation to the casting.
With African American actors in the central roles of the brother and sister, however, the play takes on a new edginess with the implication of racial passing.
Add in that the sister Laura is played as pathologically shy rather than merely dreamy by Emerald Johnson, an actress who seems totally innocent of her own histrionic power.
With these uncommon elements, you have an intriguing production from director Robbie McCauley that will have you mulling over this 1944 Williams classic in a whole new way.
Roxbury Repertory Theater's toughened-up production of "The Glass Menagerie" continues through this weekend at the easily reached Media Arts Center, across the Columbus Ave. highway from the Roxbury Crossing MBTA stop on the Orange Line.
To listen to Tom Wingfield's opening monologue, Williams seems prescient, certainly up to the moment. The narrator for the play (and an autobiographical substitute for the playwright) describes the greater landscape upon which the family drama plays out in a tiny, rather dingy tenement apartment in St. Louis. Tom gets a beguiling performance from Brandon Homer of a man soldiering on out of love and worry for the well being of his mentally fragile sister, while despairing he will never fulfill his own dreams of writing poetry and finding a life that is his own.
Tom tells us that the time is the late 1930s, when blue collar workers are still reeling from the impact of the Great Depression, with labor agitating and management backed up by the police quelling riots on the streets. (Ferguson, which is part of the greater St Louis area, immediately leaps to mind.) He goes on to talk about the world stage, commenting that the civil war in Spain has just led to a massacre of civilians at Guernica, an instant reminder of Isis and a ton of other battlefields where conservative-minded tyrants are wiping out their brethren that think differently.
Tom's over-riding concern, though, is his family, who are besieged by money worries and living under the white noise of the mother's incessant nit-picking and repetitive recollections of the grander days, when she was a popular Southern belle.
Tom and his family live in an apartment that, while sparsely furnished to the point of emptiness, is unnervingly claustrophobic, providing its occupants no escape from one another.
A blown-up photograph on the wall is all the presence in the apartment these days of the father who, as Tom says, was a telephone man who fell in love with long distances, and skipped the light fantastic out of town. Could this charmer, who swept Amanda off her feet at the height of her debut season, been of African American lineage but with skin color that suggested otherwise?
The play centers on the mother's obsession with finding a suitor, or as she puts it, "a gentleman caller," for Laura, who has dropped out of high school because she is self-conscious about her limp. She now takes secretarial classes, but has secretly dropped them as well; if she could, she'd spend her days with her collection of little glass animals - the menagerie of the play's title. But Amanda is determined to get her out in the world.
Julie Dapper, who plays Amanda, has given solid performances in past Rox Rep productions, particularly a memorable interpretation of the teacher Annie Sullivan in "The Miracle Worker," who leads little Helen Keller out of the prison her blind and deaf condition has thrown her. But Dapper goes off the track this time, giving us a bohemian Amanda who darts about the stage in bare feet, which is a nonsensical stretch for portraying a DAR member in good standing, however wacky the lady.
The Gentleman Caller, though, is ideally played, a shallow lad with a kind heart, as portrayed by Chris Gaskell. His visit to the Wingfield apartment provides some sweet moments with Laura, even to romancing her a bit -- but the aftermath of Amanda's rants derails Tom's treadmill of a life.
The gifted Mirta Tocci provides a dreamscape of a set with but a few pieces, from the ornate chandelier over the dining table to a large mobile backdrop of a fire escape ladder (typical of tenement living). She also lights the show as the moods require, and has come up with an environmental sound design, both of which add to the humdrum of the Wingfield's lives, yet are also suggestive of their aspirations and quirks.
The Roxbury Repertory Theater's production of "The Glass Menagerie" continues through a matinee at two pm on Sat., Nov. 1 with matinees and evening shows Oct. 30 and 31 at 10am and 8 pm at the Media Arts Center, Roxbury Community College, 1234 Columbus Ave. There is street parking and the MBTA Orange Line at Roxbury Crossing is across the street.