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Theater Review: ‘Menagerie’ An Excellent Season Opener For Town Players

Every now and then the Town Players of Newtown mount a production that is as fine as any regional theater in the area, and as good as any of the professional companies in Hartford or New Haven. Such is the case with their current production of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, which has been chosen to open the 2014 season at The Little Theatre. Director Marla Manning is getting bravura performances from a top notch cast in this play which, when it was first staged in 1944, established Williams as a major voice in American theater.

Described as a memory play, it is the playwright’s most personal and autobiographical work. Menagerie is Williams expressing the guilt he felt over leaving home to pursue his own dreams. Narrated by the lonely, drifting, Tom Wingfield, the play recalls the time years before, when, during the throes of the Great Depression, he chose to break loose from the chains of responsibility to his mother and sister, abandoning them to hopeless poverty.

Just as the playwright did in real life, Tom works at a mindless job in a warehouse in order to support his fading southern belle of a mother and his painfully shy sister, who live in a St Louis tenement, barely existing. Highlights of his day are the stolen moments in the toilet, where he jots down scraps of poetry.

Amanda Wingfield alternates between prodding her children to “make something” of themselves (daughter Laura is enrolled in a business course) and urging Tom to bring home suitable men for Laura to meet. Burnished by inflated memories of her insouciant Mississippi girlhood when she had so many suitable gentlemen callers that they were falling over one another in pursuit of her attention (although she picked the one loser in the bunch who eventually deserted her and the children), she is determined to see her daughter follow the traditional southern path and marry an appropriate young man with prospects.

Laura, who limps because of a crippled leg, is so fearful of people that she withdraws into a fantasy world centered around her collection of tiny glass animals, and infuriates her mother by revealing that she had stopped going to classes after the first week

When Tom finally capitulates to her demands and invites home the one co-worker who doesn’t sneer at him for his dreamy, bookish ways, Amanda is delighted. She sets her trap, pulling together alluring outfits for herself and her daughter, bathing the room in candlelight, and preparing a tempting meal which she pretends was cooked by Laura.

But things don’t go the way she planned…

I’ve seen this play many times before, and often enough Amanda’s incessant mixture of whining, nagging and self-indulgent recital of her romantic conquests is enough to drive the audience to drink, let alone her husband and son. In this production, however, the strength of the other characters’ performance, and the power of their interaction, is great enough that it all seems believably real, rather than a caricature.

Miles Everett and Karen Pope, who worked so well together in last year’s trenchant comedy, The Little Dog Laughed, are well matched here as Tom and Amanda. By turns exasperated, intimidated, and outraged to the point of speechlessness, Everett’s body language and mobile facial expressions convey the conflict that is tearing him apart.

In her ridiculously curled blonde wig, Pope is a mixture of ridiculous pretension and gallant determination, as she attempts to imprint her Technicolor fantasies on the harsh reality of the world she lives in, doggedly striving to make better things happen for her daughter. For all her grandiose posturing, and however uncomfortable she makes them, her children recognize the sincerity of her intentions.

As Laura, a young woman so shy that she can’t bear to face anyone outside the family, Alexandria Clapp conveys hidden depths of personality. The chemistry between her and Tom is so palpable and tender that you can’t help but be moved by it.

The playwright Williams was drawn to the idea of — as Blanche Dubois would phrase it in Streetcar — “the kindness of strangers.” For lonely and solitary souls, the intimacy of a passing encounter might be all there is. Thus Jim O’Connor’s casual and momentary attention — without any serious commitment — is all that Laura can ever hope for. In a beautifully nuanced performance, Chris Luongo invests the role with a perceptive sensitivity and innate decency that transcend the shallow platitudes acquired from a night school self-improvement course.

By all means go to see this one. It’s local, it’s cheap, and it’s really really good!

(Performances continue through May 17. Curtain times are 8 pm Fridays and Saturdays, with 2 pm matinees on Sundays, April 27 and May 4.

Tickets are $20 for evening shows, $15 for matinee performances.

Reservations may be made by calling the box office at 203-270-9144 or by sending an email to reservations@newtownplayers.org. For further information, visit www.newtownplayers.org or email info@newtownplayers.org. The Little Theatre is at 18 Orchard Hill Road in Newtown.

Note that Friday, May 2 is a sold-out benefit performance. Tickets for that show are $25, which includes refreshments served at 7:30. A benefit for Newtown Congregational Church’s Circle of Hope, the evening will also include raffles. Call 203-426-9024 for details.)

 

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