August 28, 2008

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Tennessee Williams at Weirs
Winnipesaukee Playhouse closes the summer with a classic drama
By Heidi Masek hmasek@hippopress.com

Tennessee Williams says that The Glass Menagerie is a memory play. It’s written in his production notes, and he has his character Tom tell the audience that at the outset: “I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”

Indeed, Williams squeezes in droplets of truths in well-turned phrases. In this production from the Winnipesaukee Playhouse, those simple lines are subtle surprises.

In Williams’ semi-autobiographical play in 1930s St. Louis, Tom as a young man, his mother and his sister are all dependent on each other in different ways. His mother, Amanda, was brought up to depend on a husband, or at least his financial legacy. Her husband has left her, however. Tom’s sister, Laura, can’t cope with anyone outside her family, which stands in the way of making a career. Supporting Amanda and Laura is left to Tom, who hates his warehouse drudgery and dreams of adventure.

To move, he has to leave his small world where he’s doted on and depended on and abandon Laura. Amanda’s constant attention irritates him, yet he can’t be mean to his mother for too long.

Alison Weisgall plays Laura with quiet strength rather than cloying fragility. The audience is reminded later that Laura is not a normal young woman — that her “defects” go beyond a limp. Weisgall expects to complete an MFA in acting at Columbia University in 2009.

I appreciated the characters’ contrast between the first and second act under Neil Pankhurst’s direction. In the first act, there’s a glimpse at how the occupants of the apartment are abnormal, but they are accepted as somewhat regular and comfortable to each other. They bring the dialogue to life in a realistic way. Even Amanda’s ceaseless chatter doesn’t seem too out of place by the end of the first act. Once Tom’s friend Jim comes to dinner in the second act, each character is on his worst behavior, and the truth of who they are becomes painfully obvious when confronted with a stranger.

Carolyn Kirsch, who played Amanda, has a background in musicals. Perhaps that experience is put to use as the former southern belle with a melodic, not quite sing-song Southern accent. She calls forth graceful poise when Amanda is recalling her girlhood. This is Kirsch’s first performance with Winnipesaukee Playhouse. Over her career she appeared in 15 Broadway shows, working frequently with Michael Bennett and Bob Fosse. She now teaches at Hartford Conservatory.

Adam Kee showed Tom’s caring side as well as his contrary and sullen ones. Just a few of his shouts at Amanda seemed a little more piercing than necessary, though, overshadowing other lines. Kee, of New York, has appeared in six other Winnipesaukee Playhouse professional summer titles. He has an MFA from The New School.

David Utz Towlun’s set involves a platform stage that denotes a living room. (Towlun is currently working on props for A Tale of Two Cities on Broadway.) The dining table is visible through an opening at the back of the stage the size of a sliding glass door. A screen-like curtain is pulled across it to separate the dining room during some scenes. A suitably worn-looking door and a window mark the sides of the living room, and the prescribed fire escape entrance is to the right.

The use of what appeared to be an actual fire escape was key. Just implying that there’s a fire escape would have caused the performance to lose something.

Fire escapes tend to feel precarious as a means of escape — which is ultimately what Tom wants to do. With this setup, along with lighting that mimicked moonlight (Matthew Guminski is the lighting designer), there was a clear delineation between the outside and inside. Tom talks about his escape plans on the fire escape, while indoors his sister escapes into a world of glass figurines and her father’s Victrola records. Amanda escapes her present by talking about her more privileged past and fussing over her adult children. Outdoors, Tom talks about his life outside the apartment. He’s a “selfish dreamer” who sedates himself with movies and drink.

Kirsch and Weisgall captivated as they took the audience through memories of their characters. I could see Amanda’s Southern porch, and Laura’s high school hallways. Tom’s descriptions normally had to do with his future or tales he made up or borrowed from movies.

Silhouettes of fire escapes hung above the stage, which initially served to show that the apartment was one in a large neighborhood. They also perhaps symbolized that Tom’s family could be surrounded by hundreds or thousands of other frustrated lives. The characters can’t help each other, which could have been a predicament played out in many other homes.

As upsetting as their situation is, there’s humor in exchanges between Tom and his mother. Kirsch also made the most of Amanda’s telephone calls selling magazine subscriptions, going on about how a fellow D.A.R. member with an ailment was just a “Christian martyr.” Later in the play, it’s disturbing to watch Amanda blindly pin her hope for security on one evening.

Overall, the last show in Winnipesaukee’s 2008 season offers a performance and ambience that are well worth the ticket price. And yes, it is a bit surprising to find this level of theater professionalism in Weirs Beach (sorry, Weirs). — Heidi Masek


If you go
What: The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
Where: The Winnipesaukee Playhouse, at Alpenrose Plaza, routes 11B and 3 in Weirs Beach, Laconia
When: At 8 p.m., nightly through Saturday, Aug. 30.
Tickets $17-$19
Contact: See www.winniplayhouse.com or call 366-7377.

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