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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

its greatness.

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

feminine consciousness.

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

mugging.

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

to be."

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

The Glass Menagerie, Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey,

F.M. Kirby Theater, Drew University, Madison, 973-408-5600. Performances

to July 20. $23 to $28.


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