Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Lovely production of Tennessee Williams' classic memory play enhanced with magical use of projections

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Liberties have been taken.

One might assume that of the new Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre production of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. Layered into the action of four actors upon the stage, movies are projected of cityscapes, magicians and a lineup of "gentlemen callers." Near the end, the whole stage is enveloped by a moving picture image of the play's narrator, Tom Wingfield (Ryan James Miller).

Williams would not have objected. In his original production notes for his autobiographical "memory play," he embraced the possibilities of expressionism in the telling of this story, and wrote in directions for a "screen device" on which words and pictures would be projected above the action, to embellish or punctuate ideas.

Director Stephen Schipper runs with that liberty, enlisting Winnipeg filmmaker Deco Dawson to design elaborate, old-timey images projected not just on a scrim, but on the chairs and couches of Charlotte Dean's sets, to magical effect.

Such technological embroidery might seem gimmicky if not for the anchored, meticulously directed drama at the core.

The Glass Menagerie is the story of the Wingfield clan, or what remains of it. Amanda (Kelli Fox) is the matriarch, a faded southern belle valiantly striving to keep going, despite the wider depredations of the Great Depression, and the more personal indignity of a husband who has long flown the coop, a "telephone man who fell in love with long distances."

Left with her are her son Tom, slowly rebelling under Amanda's matriarchal scrutiny, and Laura (Andrea del Campo), a sickly, frail and pathologically shy young woman, distracted by her sad collection of tiny glass animal figurines.

Brother and sister endure Amanda's remembrances of her genteel southern past. But Tom, who supports the family with a warehouse job, aches for adventure beyond his mother's reach. Amanda bargains with him that he can win his freedom if he might ensnare a "gentleman caller" for Laura, a man who might take over his responsibilities. So Tom delivers on that promise with his fellow warehouse worker Jim O'Connor (Tim Ziegler), coincidentally Laura's high school crush.

As in many a family unit, it is the mother who forms the nucleus, and Fox holds the centre here with a strong, sad, droll performance: her Amanda is a hybrid of jonquil and steamroller.

That is not to say Fox dominates. As her feminine opposite, del Campo impresses equally. Her Laura is retiring even when alone onstage: she seems to want to disappear into the walls. When caught in a lie, her face forms a rictus as painful as an exposed nerve, but when drawn into a conversation with Jim, she is luminous. (It is interesting that the character of Laura, as unique as a unicorn in the era of the play's writing, is now a more readily identifiable archetype here in the 21st century: the solitary fantasist -- a geek.)

As Tom (Tennessee Williams' birth name, by the way), Miller also does good work, although one wishes his line-delivery were less measured and more possessed of the Mississippi flow of the southerner. And as that longed-for gentleman caller, Ziegler channels the charm and grace of a bygone masculinity.

With The Glass Menagerie, Williams ushered in a new era in theatre. This production honours that achievement, without coddling its legacy in unadventurous tradition.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 15, 2014 G1

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