Review of “The Glass Menagerie” and “You Lied To Me About Centralia” at Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

    Carrie Houk and her associates at the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis had a gift on their hands. But what could they do with it? They planned to do Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, his first big hit, now a lasting classic. The play is set in St. Louis, and seems pretty obviously to be set in the apartment the Williams first lived in when they moved to St. Louis. And that apartment still exists. Could you do it in that apartment? That might be a little more immersive than you want, especially with a pandemic breathing down our necks. Audiences are more comfortable in the open air. So Houk and company decided to do Menagerie outdoors, on the lot next to the building, right up against it. That had the decided advantage of being the side of the building with the fire escapes. Fire escapes loom large as Williams reconstructs the St. Louis of his youth. That’s the perch for his main, autobiographical character Tom Wingfield. He stands there as he begins to tell us of his sister and his mother in a Depression-era northern city, crowded and dirty, so different from the small Mississippi town where they had lived in the home of his Episcopal minister grandfather. Tom speaks from the fire escape whenever he addresses the audience from what is now his present time, on the deck of a merchant ship, the chariot on which he has escaped from St. Louis.

    But then he joins his sister and mother in that Depression era apartment. And, as always on the stage, that past time is now the present time, the time that those characters are living in, and us with them. You can’t present the past on the stage; it must be, or at least seem to be, the present time, or a present time. Scenic Designer Dunsi Dai does what he can to help us slip into that past-as-present, but, being outdoors, it’s a little sketchy. He’s tried to connect the outdoors with the building behind it by hanging some window frames between stage and building, echoing the ranks of windows facing us on the building. I had a little trouble with the layout of the apartment, two platforms, one for the dining room, one for the living room, with a door frame up stage center. I thought at first it must lead outside to the fire escape. Then I realized that the fire escape entrance was stage left. I’m still not sure about that door frame. I guess it led to the rest of the apartment. 

    Director Brian Hohlfeld’s firm command of the playing and of the space quickly makes such concerns irrelevant.

    But the furniture and Michele Siler’s costumes give the actors a reality they can work with. And they do create living characters having a lived experience. I was especially impressed by Bradley James Tejeda as Tom. He made every moment fresh. Even that final speech was not just nostalgic and poetic. He seemed even a little angry, at fate, at himself, even at Laura for haunting him. And the speech came alive again.

    You wanted somehow to protect Elizabeth Teeter’s Laura. She glows when Tennessee gives his sister Rose a kiss from that high school boy she’d had a crush on, and she turns off all the lights when the dream collapses.  

    Brenda Currin gives full measure to the complex Amanda Wingfield, a woman raised in genteel Southern society and expecting to remain there, now abandoned by husband in the crude industrial North, trying bravely and inventively to cling to that gentility while confronting its opposite head-on. Occasional pauses had me concerned, but Currin never lost her grip on Amanda.  All three Wingfields effortlessly and convincingly speak like natives of Mississippi. 

    Chauncy Thomas as the Gentleman Caller Jim, that longed-for and long awaited Godot who actually does show up and then disappears, does not speak like a native of Mississippi but like a native of St. Louis. He carefully and beautifully tempers his scene with Laura.

    Catherine Adams designed the lighting and Kareem Deans the sound, which includes original music created by director Hohlfeld and Oliver Kwapis.

    Rather like Our Town, The Glass Menagerie has become in quite a different way an essential American play. This production treats it well.

    Jim rushes from the Wingfields’ apartment to pick up his fiancee Betty at the Wabash depot. John Guare was one of six playwrights commissioned by The Acting Company to write plays based on short stories by Williams. Guare chose “Portrait of a Girl in Glass.” It’s about the Wingfields, with its focus on Laura; Williams later expanded it into The Glass Menagerie. Jim is not in the short story, so Guare uses Jim’s evening with the family to tell their stories as they are told in the short story. Some of these stories we know from Menagerie; some of them we find only in the short story, and now in “You Lied to Me About Centralia,” Guare’s play. 

    Julia Crump’s Betty is quite different from Laura, and Jim may begin to wonder if that special strangeness of Blue Roses might be preferable. But Betty is not about to release her grip on Jim, and he settles into it. 

    Director Rayme Cornell brings out the script’s contrasts between these characters and among those in Williams’ play. Michele Siler again provides costumes and Kareem Deanes sound. 

    “Portrait of a Girl in Glass” is a good fit for Guare as he turns it into “You Lied to Me About Centralia.” 

    —Bob Wilcox

    Photo by ProPhotoSTL