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This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the July 9, 2003 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Review: `The Glass Menagerie’
Whether or not a particular production of "The
Glass Menagerie" reaches the heights to which it aspires, the
58-year-old play by Tennessee Williams can be counted on to reaffirm
At the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, the summer production under
the direction of Robert Cuccioli (of "Jekyll and Hyde" fame),
has its affecting moments but they occur rarely; nor do they occur
from the performances by the actresses playing mother and daughter,
Amanda and Laura. But the sublime play has, as always, its inherent
rewards to console the fans of arguably America’s greatest playwright.
Even if one didn’t know that Cuccioli’s background was primarily acting
and singing in musical theater, it betrays him in the sing-song, over-stylized
performances he has elicited from his leading players.
Both Wendy Barrie-Wilson, who plays Amanda, and Katherine Kellgren,
who plays the fragile Laura, succeed not only in chewing up the nicely
impressionistic setting by designer Brian Ruggaber, but also in trampling
upon the subtle landscape of illusion and reality provided by lighting
designer Bruce Auerbach. Only in fits and starts is there any indication
that they, or the director, are in support of the more luminous and
delicate qualities in the play.
Notwithstanding the play’s distinctive devotion to memory and the
harsh realities of the world, Cuccioli has yet to realize that his
playwright Williams has already done most of the work for him. Cuccioli’s
task is in seeing that all the performances should be as finely sculpted
as the miniature glass collection that absorbs the fantasizing mind
and soulful time of the crippled Laura. Unfortunately this is not
in evidence. So here we have a "Menagerie" to be approached
with extremely guarded confidence.
In this instance, Barrie-Wilson has enough professional credits (the
program notes this as her 90th play) to suggest she would know better
than to portray Amanda as if honesty in emotion and truth in behavior
had no place within the play’s poetic and lyrical indulgences. Unlike
the only other truly great memory play, "Long Day’s Journey Into
Night," which is steeped in a masculine consciousness, the fate
of "Menagerie" is sealed by an Amanda who can exist in timeless
That Amanda is also a steel magnolia who survives the world and its
problems with grit and without any loss of romantic illusion, is a
formidable combination for any actor to embody. Barrie-Wilson is best
when Amanda’s pathetic foolishness is allowed to flower. However,
Barrie-Wilson’s performance is not one that believably supports her
as a vision of antebellum charm, as she unconvincingly sashays around
in her let-out white cotillion gown when her daughter’s gentleman
caller arrives. For most of the play, Barrie-Wilson gives a shrill,
one-note portrait of a Southern ex-belle who believes in gentility
to the bitter end. There are fleeting reminders of Amanda’s heroic
stoicism, but not enough to convince us that she is at one with the
confused vitality of a woman who has learned how to successfully propel
herself through a life laced with paranoia.
Although Laura should be the symbolic center of the play, Katherine
Kellgren’s performance patently mars the surface of her character’s
shattered sensibilities by overacting to the brink of farce. This,
as she submits to the overpowering effects of Amanda’s maternalism
with a bad case of eye fluttering and a disaffecting reliance on a
superimposed speech impediment. Hers is a performance that may hopefully
grow more subtle once someone reminds her to put her trust in Williams’
text (the same is true for Barrie-Wilson) and abstain from the outlandish
Williams’ "memory play" needs a narrator that
can convey the poet’s twin worlds of fact and dream. As Amanda’s son
Tom, Robert Petkoff has the sensitivity and the guile to be both spokesmen
for melancholy illusion and an adventurer filled with passionate longings.
There is the essential guile of the armchair adventurer about Tom,
and Petkoff’s mostly angry portrayal is on the mark. To his credit,
he does a lot more than simply drift indecisively through the illusions.
Incisively, he brings to the play many of its few honest emotions.
Also commendable is Kevin Rolston as the "nice" gentleman
caller. His Dale Carnegie-prompted performance shows us just how far
self-assurance, a pack of chewing gum, and a smile can take you. And
just to note how far Williams can take you, I dare you to leave the
theater without thinking about Tom’s final words: "Oh Laura, Laura,
I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended
For the record: McCarter Theater audiences saw a very affecting Shirley
Knight paired with Judy Kuhn in this play in 1991. But ever since
Laurette Taylor made Broadway history as Amanda in the original cast
in 1945, such acclaimed actors as Maureen Stapleton (in 1965 and 1975),
Jessica Tandy in 1984, and Julie Harris in 1994 have each encountered
difficulties in harnessing this complex character. The late and great
Gertrude Lawrence and Katherine Hepburn also played Amanda with mixed
results respectively in a Hollywood film and a made-for-TV film.
— Simon Saltzman
F.M. Kirby Theater, Drew University, Madison, 973-408-5600. Performances
to July 20. $23 to $28.
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