January 30, 2009

Menagerie a triumph in execution and obeisance
by Greg Boyle

This review needs to state the most important fact up front. The presentation of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie by Kansas City Repertory Theatre is a stunning theatrical event. Every aspect of the production is not only first-rate, but much of it is jaw dropping. Besides eliciting outstanding performances from his cast, director David Cromer has put together a production that includes innovative scenic, lighting and sound designs, which further enhance the power of this emotionally charged play.

Considered the most autobiographical of Williams’ plays, Glass Menagerie is the “leaving home” story of the author. We are presented with the Wingfields — mother Amanda, daughter Laura, and son Tom, who represents Williams — living in St. Louis in the 1930s. Their circumstances allow few luxuries, because the father abandoned them a dozen years before. Lest we forget, in that era, our culture still expected young men and women to stay home until married. A woman unmarried by her mid-twenties was well on her way to being an old maid. After marriage, one of the children was expected to take care of the parents. There was no Social Security, and few jobs offered pensions. The guilt inherent in breaking that social contract was enormous.

Tom, played by Derek Hasenstab, works to support the three of them. Like the author, Tom’s a poet. Hasenstab, through narration and family interactions, sensitively reveals his interacting emotions of duty, resentment, compassion and guilt — the primary conflict of the play. His morbidly shy sister, Laura, played by Susan Bennett, lives in her own little world, obsessed with a collection of glass figurines. This “glass menagerie” is a direct metaphor for Laura herself — easily broken, yet very beautiful when held up to the light. Bennett’s fragility and resignation are so poignant that they are almost painful to watch. Her cry of despair when Tom finally leaves is absolutely heart breaking

It is the character of the mother, Amanda, who is the central force of this play, as is typical in the Williams oeuvre. Her smothering, anxiety-filled, guilt-mongering personality would be enough to drive anyone away. Annalee Jefferies, as Amanda, is completely, devastatingly, overwhelming on target every moment. The flow of words from her mouth is in itself a marvel. In some ways, it was like watching a performance of Miles Davis. The notes kept coming and coming, but I don’t remember ever hearing Jefferies take a breath. Every note was right on pitch, and the physical, emotional, psychological tension she creates by her performance sets the stage for all the choices every other character makes throughout the play. Even the motivations of the long-gone paterfamilias are readily understood.

Kyle Hatley plays the Gentleman Caller — so long awaited by Amanda, so long dreaded by Laura. His character represents the only touch with the outside world that occurs in this family setting. Hatley’s performance is low-key, romantic and gentle, even while setting the backdrop for the final confrontation.

The impact of this fresh interpretation of a true American classic begins before you even arrive at your seat. Collette Pollard has created a visually startling set, designed to expand the meaning of a “memory play,” as Williams calls it. Your eyes are treated to and challenged by the vision of a traditional set of an apartment, but in pieces. The effect is a foreshadowing of the emotional explosions to come, with sidewall akimbo and chandelier defying gravity by hanging sideways on a disjointed ceiling. Yet all pieces are still whole, as though suspended in time in the split-second following the Big Bang. Just like the story, it is all in a different dimension of time.

Throughout the performance, sound and light technology is used to exceptional effect. Unexpected “stings” of echo-chambered amplification created by sound designer Josh Schmidt, highlight important words and phrases. With greater frequency the audience is treated to projections of words, images and narration projected onto a variety of surfaces of the stage. Jeffrey Cady, the light designer, allows the audience breathing space from the tension with this technique, which reminds us that the action is not happening now, but as Tom remembers it.

The marriage of the old and the new in this production is simply enthralling. Interestingly enough, this is the sort of thing that Williams had in mind when he wrote the play. It didn’t happen in the first Broadway production, and has been attempted only rarely since. The KC Rep’s use of these devices is a fulfillment of the original intent of the author, over 60 years delayed. The author would certainly be proud, just as Kansas City should be proud that such a triumph has been produced right here in our town. Eric Rosen, in his first season as artistic director of the Rep is showing his chops right out of the starting gate.

This production has already proved so popular that it has been extended an extra week to Feb. 15. The Glass Menagerie is being performed at the Copaken Stage at the H&R Block Building at 13th and Walnut. Call the box office at 816-235-2700, or online at

Greg Boyle can be contacted at


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