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LIGHTNING REVIEW: 'Glass Menagerie' is filling fall fare

Paige Posey as Amanda and Scott Treadway as Tom star in 'The Glass Menagerie' at Flat Rock Playhouse. [BLUE BEND PHOTOGRAPHY] Paige Posey as Amanda and Scott Treadway as Tom star in 'The Glass Menagerie' at Flat Rock Playhouse. [BLUE BEND PHOTOGRAPHY]

"The Glass Menagerie" is Tennessee Williams’ thinly veiled autobiographical play about the everlasting damage family members can inflict on one another even while proclaiming the noblest motives.

Using the medium of memory, Williams peels away the layers of individual disappointment, betrayal, regret and illusion to lay bare what’s left of the Wingfield family after the departure 16 years earlier of Mr. Wingfield, “a telephone man who fell in love with long distance.”

Amanda, mother of the household, is the abandoned wife who reminds herself and her children frequently of how desirable she was as a young belle of Memphis society entertaining as many as 17 gentleman callers at once. Tom is the aspiring writer who longs for adventure beyond the confines of his dead-end warehouse job. Laura, Tom’s sister who is older chronologically but younger emotionally, lives in a fantasy world proscribed by the limits of her tiny, fragile glass figurines, her father’s old phonograph records and the walls of their run-down apartment. Amanda and Tom hurl criticisms at each other like mortar shells with only occasional truces. They seem to follow the philosophy of warfare that says, “You’ve got to destroy a village to save it.”

Unfortunately it is Laura who ends up as collateral damage from Tom and Amanda’s explosive exchanges. Painfully shy because of a residual limp from a childhood bout of polio, Laura has retreated into herself. Tom and Amanda are so wrapped up in their self-pity and their anger at one another that neither stops to consider what Laura really needs. Amanda chides Laura’s lack of initiative and assumes that all Laura needs is a typing class and a few gentleman callers. Tom excuses Laura’s withdrawn nature as a result of being simple minded and incapable of growing beyond her present social paralysis. Until gentleman caller Jim O’Connor, one of Tom’s friends from the warehouse, comes to dinner, no one thinks to appreciate Laura’s differences, consider her interests or gently encourage her to take small steps toward a dream of her own.

To bring Tennessee Williams’ memories to life, the Playhouse main stage was effectively transformed into a shabby St. Louis apartment suggesting an undercurrent of economic desperation but with the blurry edges of a dream. Centrally placed on stage is the portrait of Mr. Wingfield, the character that overshadows every interaction among the remaining family members. His very present absence reminds Amanda of what she gave up and Tom of what he, as his father’s stand-in, has to live down. Paige Posey, a stage veteran (and the current president of the Playhouse board), keeps her character Amanda teetering on the edge of panic as she both realizes and denies that Tom, played by Scott Treadway, is bound to leave her, too. Treadway, also a Playhouse stalwart, brings energy to his performance insisting to anyone who will listen that he is destined for greater things. His insistence has to be forceful to counter the guilt that guts him every time he thinks of leaving Laura to be the lone foil for Amanda’s bitter regret.

Sarah Barnett, a talented newcomer to the Playhouse, brings her experience on the New York stage to the character of Laura Wingfield giving her a painful vulnerability. The audience pulls for Laura, cringing every time she is buffeted by another thoughtless jab from Amanda or well-meaning slight by Tom. More than vulnerability, though, Barnett gives Laura a spark of potential as well. If only someone would find a way to get close enough to give oxygen to the spark and help it glow.

Karack Osborn, also new to the Playhouse, is the gentleman caller, Jim O’Connor, who appears to be just the one to get Laura’s spark to glow. Osborn has the physical bearing of a pro linebacker, and his towering presence plus his character’s hail-fellow-well-met optimism seem destined to crush the tiny, withdrawn Laura. In his exchange with Tom, Jim does appear at first to be a congenial blockhead ready to serve Dale Carnegie pabulum with a shovel. But he is transformed in Laura’s presence into a truly gentle man, able to see her for whom she is and persuade her to open her shell just a bit. The dance scene between the two is both sweet and lovely.

The challenge of Williams’s play is to stage it in a way that clearly reveals it to be a sequence of Tom Wingfield’s memories as he looks back on his last days at home and the guilt he feels for having left. The separation between the remembering Tom and the Tom being remembered wasn’t always clear on the Playhouse stage. Also, the actors had to practically jog to fight against the momentum of the moving sets to get from dining table to fire escape landing and back. At one point Laura had to lose her limp to get there in time. The pacing, in general, was sometimes too quick. The actors chose to keep things moving when they could have lingered a beat longer to let the audience more deeply feel the emotion of the scene.

After a fun summer menu of “Mamma Mia” and “Always A Bridesmaid” the Playhouse audience on opening night was hungry for a stick-to-your-ribs entrée. With “The Glass Menagerie,” Tennessee Williams prepared a sumptuous feast, and, under the able direction of Lisa K. Bryant, the Playhouse Vagabonds served it up with style.

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“The Glass Menagerie” runs through Oct. 13 on the Mainstage of the Flat Rock Playhouse. Performances are 2 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets are $20-52 with a child ticket at $17 for 17 and under and can be purchased by calling the Playhouse box office at 828-693-0731, toll-free at 866-737-8008 or visiting www.flatrockplayhouse.org.