By PAM HARBAUGH
Tackling “The Glass Menagerie,” is a delicate process, but, in the end, worth every moment, says Peg Girard, director of Melbourne Civic Theatre. The drama opens there May 19.
Written by Tennessee Williams in 1944, “The Glass Menagerie” takes a look at a highly dysfunctional family trying to hold together the shards of their lives. Living in a St. Louis tenement, a desperate mother, Amanda looks after her grown daughter, Laura, who is at best detached from reality. They both depend on her grown son, Tom, but he has had enough and plans to leave.
The characters may confront each other with raw feelings, but the setting, as suggested by Williams, is nearly gossamer in its impressionistic qualities: A fragmented floor, a scrim behind which the family gathers for dinner, images of blue roses appear and disappear, as does the image of a father who abandoned his family.
While many theaters disregard Williams’ scenic descriptions and go the route of realism, Girard is embracing them. She and scenic/lighting designer Alan Selby worked to create a “misty memory” setting.
“We wanted to portray visually how the family is fractured, torn apart,” Selby said. “So we took the set and tore it apart, separating the spaces and showing them as just disconnected pieces. Empty window frames suspended in air, just a portion of the fire escape visible. Even the building across the alley is depicted as appearing ‘through the mists.’ Lighting helps the separation, isolating the actors and helping us to see just that moment, just that fragment.”
But no matter how impressionistic the set may be, the acting must be realistic, she said, in order to reveal true character. So, she told the cast to play it straight, relate to their roles and try to discover what made the characters tick.Girard turned to the 2014 Williams’ biography “Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh” by famed theater critic John Lahr.
The book is “fascinating,” Girard said. The book gave her insights into each of the four characters and into Williams’ own life, which is reflected in his plays. Amanda reflects his own mother and Laura, his own sister. Sadly, it was Laura who was lobotomized – that was explored in his 1958 play “Suddenly Last Summer.”
“His mother was not nice,” Girard said. “She was pretty horrible…and his father did leave his family.”
Kathy Minzenberger takes on the role of Amanda, one of her favorites. She said the character has a “full gamut” of emotions. One of the actions Amanda takes to help make their lives better is to get Tom to ask Jim, a “gentleman caller,” to visit Laura. Her hopes are that Jim will fall in love with Laura and help pull them out of their bleak existence.
“Amanda is a woman is a mother and a fighter,” she said. “Very few people, especially women, would find it hard not to relate to that.”
Mark Blackledge, plays the role of Tom, the playwright’s alter ego. Admittedly not a “Tennessee Williams fan,” Blackledge said he fell for the symbolism in it. One line he finds especially resonating comes when Tom tells Amanda how much he hates his job and how he resents having his family depend on him: “For $65 a month I give up all I dream of doing and being ever.”
“I use that as the cornerstone for his character,” Blackledge said. “Tom loves his sister, and he loves his mother, but he abandons them.”
Dan Wilkerson plays Jim, the kind-hearted “Gentleman Caller,” and Emily Pickens is Laura, the out of touch collector of glass who has been delicate since birth.
Of course, with such a theatricalized production, and one that is heavy drama as well, Girard knew she had to save this for her final show of the season. She chooses more popular shows for earlier on the season bill. Those typically sell out, making it possible to pay for something that she expects will not sell out.
“That is the slot I choose for plays I really like to do,” she said. “It’s Peg’s time slot.”
In years past, she has wrought remarkable, provocative productions of classic American drama, including Arthur Miller’s “The Price,” William Inge’s “Picnic” and Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance.” Next year, it will be Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever.” She says it’s important to do something with theatrical gravitas and just as important to have variety in a season bill; but one that can pay the bills.
She took a chance on producing Theresa Rebeck’s “Mauritius” after having a popular public reading of it in MCT’s Playreads series. Audiences wanted that produced. But, alas, not enough audience. The full production brought in the lowest amount of money MCT took in this season.
“So you’ve got to keep the doors open,” Girard said. “The rent is $5,000 a month. You’ve gotta pay the rent.”
Still, she hopes that audiences turn out big time for this classic Tennessee Williams work and that they will appreciate the resonance of great drama and to get something from the play.
“I hope you find this production of ‘The Glass Menagerie’ full of personal truths. To be enlightening and rousing and most of all to a reminder that life is no tragedy…I want for you to be able to look inside yourself and change, manage your life better. It’s always up to you, not others. That’s what happens to Tom. He finally decides to put himself first. That’s why he leaves.”
SIDE O’ GRITS: “The Glass Menagerie” opens May 19 and runs through June 25 at Melbourne Civic Theatre, 817 Strawbridge Ave., Melbourne. It performs 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $29 and $31. Handling charges may apply. Call 321-723-6935, visit MyMCT.org or click on their ad.
This is an edited version of a story running in the Melbourne Beachsider.