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The Glass Menagerie (Santa Rosa)

You cross the entryway to the 6th Street Playhouse’s Studio Theatre and find yourself trodding upon the pavement of an urban back alley.  Discarded paper and assorted junk litters the walls and corners of the surrounding buildings.  The back entrance to a restaurant faces you, to the side is a fire escape leading down from an abutting building.  You take your seat and scan the entire theatre.  Some people seem transfixed by the set, others peruse their programs, still others engage in spirited conversations with their seatmates.   A noise and slight movement draws your attention back to the set and you realize there’s a person up there, originally unnoticeable, now fully visible.  The audience takes note, steers attention to this soul for a while, and then returns to perusing their programs or their prior conversations.  After 15 minutes or so, you hear a voice: “Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve…”.

Dallas Munger, Jacquelyn Wells

So begins the 6th Street Playhouse’s production of Tennessee William’s “The Glass Menagerie”, directed by Craig Miller and now in its closing weekend. “…Menagerie” is a memory play, a term created by Williams himself, that is now commonly used to describe a play in which a narrator recalls an incident or incidents from his past, and those incidents come to life onstage.  Williams himself defined it this way:

“The scene is memory and is therefore non-realistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart. The interior is therefore rather dim and poetic.”

The memory that Tom Wingfield (Dallas Munger) relates is of the circumstances that led him to abandon his mother, Amanda (Jacquelyn Wells) and sister, Laura (Katie Kelley Stowe) after a fateful evening’s dinner with an invited guest (Benjamin Stowe).

Katie Kelley Stowe, Benjamin Stowe

Miller has gathered a fine cast of local artists to inhabit Williams’ characters. Benjamin Stowe, as “gentleman caller” Jim, is the very picture of the square-jawed All-American boy, whose good-looks and charm mask an insecurity and early recognition that life does not always turn out as we want it. Laura is often played as a plain, unassuming and delicate girl, whose beauty lies within.  Ms. Stowe, afforded the gift of outward beauty, deftly allows us to see that beauty as the beauty that others can see in Laura and that she should see in herself, but is unable to as the result of her inability to deal with the issues of self-image and self-worth.   That, and the influence of her mother.  Ah, her mother.  I wish Jacquelyn Wells had brought more layers of complexity to her portrayal of Amanda, so that her actions could be seen as less malevolent and malicious and more as the deeply flawed choices of a deeply flawed person

Dallas Munger

And then there’s Tom.  Perhaps the concept of “poetic license” is taken to its most extreme with the choice to play Tom Wingfield as a homeless, alcoholic and mentally disturbed man.  First, let me say that Dallas Munger gives as committed a performance as I’ve seen delivered on a Sonoma County stage. How committed? According to other theatre patrons, it began in the parking lot of the Playhouse, where he was mistaken as one of the many homeless denizens of Railroad Square. It continued through the pre-show moments, and was maintained almost through the entirety of the show. I say ‘almost’ because there were a few moments when Mr. Munger delivered a line or chose a specific physical action that sounded or appeared to me to be out-of-era . They were minor moments at best, but still moments that took me out of their ‘world’ and returned me to my immediate surroundings. Mr. Munger and his cast mates, however, were able to quickly bring me back. Interestingly enough, what did not pull me out of the world of this play was the ambient sound of the outside world.  Often in a space like the Studio Theatre, the sounds of the real world intrude upon the world of the play, often at the most inopportune moments.  Sebastopol’s Main Stage West often faces the same problem – a tender and romantic scene set in the 1800’s interrupted by the approaching and then departing rumble of a Harley-Davidson.  In the matter of “…Menagerie”, the omnipresent sounds of automobiles and police sirens perfectly fit in with the setting of the play, adding just a dash of realism to the non-realistic.

Having stated all that, and again recognizing the remarkable work of Mr. Munger, I must return to what I feel is a fundamental problem with the radical approach to the character of Tom.

The problem is this. To add the question of Tom’s mental health to the equation is to almost give him an “out” for his actions. We do not hold people with mental illnesses to the same standards of accountability for their actions as we do those ‘of sound mind.’ The best example of this is how our criminal justice system allows for a verdict of “not guilty by reason of insanity” in what are often the most heinous of crimes.  To plant the seeds of mental illness in Tom is to plant the seeds of doubt in Tom’s culpability and responsibility for his actions.  It also can lead one to question whether he is truly regretful or remorseful and, in the biggest of pictures, can lead one to question the entirety of his memory. Does he really give us “truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion”?  While Tennessee Williams clearly states the “memory takes a lot of poetic license”, I’m not quite sure that Mr. Williams would approve of that much license.

That being said and the questions of execution of concept having now been addressed, what of the elephant in the room?

Irrelevant to this discussion.

6th Street Playhouse’s production of “The Glass Menagerie” is well worth seeing.

The Glass Menagerie

through September 28

* Rusty Thompson portrays Jim in the matinee performances *

6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
(707) 523-4185

Photos by Eric Chazankin

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