Theatre Review: ‘The Glass Menagerie’ at Stage Door Players

Photos by R. Todd Fleeman

“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve…I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” How many students have read these opening words in Tennessee Williams’ 1944 seminal masterwork “The Glass Menagerie,” currently on view in Stage Door Players’ flawless production, directed by Topher Payne, through February 16? Far more, I fear, than have seen the play, especially a version as shimmering and magnetic as this one.

That’s the thing about “masterpieces,” when they’re well done by an inspired, gifted cast: You have a sense of discovery as though you had never seen it before, never heard the familiar words, or been fascinated by Laura’s little glass animals—and you are charmed.

I am assuming you have a familiarity with the play, so I’m not going to elaborate about the plot, except to remind you that we’re in the Wingfield residence, a very small St. Louis apartment. There is the mother, Amanda (Shelly McCook), who hovers over her two grown children, Tom (Jonathan Horne) and Laura (Katie Causey), like an overly solicitous hawk. Amanda had a gracious upbringing in the South; she cannot provide the niceties of living for her children that she enjoyed.

Tom also serves as the play’s narrator; he informs us that we’re in the 1930’s, and that “the play is memory. Being a memory play it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.” Tom is a would-be writer (the autobiographical Tennessee Williams), currently employed in a shoe factory—a job that he hates with a passion. Tom is restless, has ambitions, and wants out, even though he loves his mother and his sister.

By the way, the father left some years ago; “he was a telephone man who fell in love with long distances”; only his smiling photograph remains.

Laura is painfully shy, disabled, and has dropped out of the business school her mother enrolled her in. She spends her time tending to her collection of little glass animals and listening to the phonograph; but she loves her brother and understands his frustration.

Amanda never tires of regaling her children with tales of her previous life as the belle of the ball, such as the afternoon she entertained 17 gentleman callers. She tells Laura: “Girls that aren’t cut out for business careers usually wind up married to some nice man. Sister, that’s what you’ll do!” And Amanda hatches the plan of getting Tom to bring home from the factory some nice young man for Laura.

The gentleman caller, Jim (Benjamin Strickland), is “the long delayed but always expected something that we live for.” His final scenes with Laura are heartbreaking, as you may recall.

The play may sound prosaic or static to you on paper; I assure you, in the live theatre, it is not. It has an ineffable delicacy, poignance, intimacy—and, surprisingly, much humor.

We have a heaven-sent cast; Mr. Payne has chosen brilliantly. It’s a pleasure to mention all four, starting with the always superb Jonathan Horne as Tom, who tells us in the last speech he was fired for writing a poem on a shoebox. Mr. Horne’s Tom is vital, restless, magnetic. You see clearly the artist that Tom will become. And he breaks your heart when he chokes up in his final speech to Laura, whom he’s left.

Ms. McCook’s Amanda is simply marvelous. This is a difficult role to play, for Amanda is far more complex than she seems (as are most human beings). But Ms. McCook absolutely nails it; she is thrilling. The playwright always said that the original Amanda, a legendary stage actress named Laurette Taylor, was incomparable. I would venture to say that both Mr. Williams and Ms. Taylor would applaud this performance.

Ms. Causey is lovely, showing us a Laura with keen intelligence and perception, not merely a victim. Yet when she says to Jim (her gentleman caller), “You see, I wasn’t acquainted with many—people,” it is very easy to tear up.

Mr. Strickland, unknown to me before this play—is a perfect Jim. He’s handsome, gentlemanly, completely solicitous to Laura, even as his final revelation (I won’t say what) shatters her, Amanda, and the audience. “Things have a way of turning out so badly,” says Amanda. I predict a very interesting future for Mr. Strickland, if he wishes it.

Thanks for the excellent, gentle music in the background by sound designer Rial Ellsworth.

J. D. Williams’ lighting is fine, but I would offer one suggestion. I know Williams himself says the play is dimly lit; yet I have this thing of always wanting to see the actors’ faces. I’m thinking especially of Jim and Laura’s final scene. Williams also said in notes, “Shafts of light are focused on selected areas or actors, sometimes in contradistinction to what is the apparent center.” Quite simply I would love to see their faces a bit better; it’s a subtle but important adjustment.

Thankfully the theatre is intimate; you need that with “The Glass Menagerie.” Finally, Mr. Payne and Tennessee Williams are both from Mississippi; perhaps they have a mystical connection. At any rate, Mr. Payne has put much love and care into this production, and it shows. This may be the best “Menagerie” you will see in your lifetime; try not to miss it.

For tickets and information, visit stagedoorplayers.net.

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