Iowa City – Tennessee William’s The Glass Menagerie is a classic American play, and would probably find a home on most theatre people’s top ten list. It’s a timeless story of family and responsibility. It’s also a character study of a single mother living a very different life than she expected, a son forced to be the man of the house, and a delicate sister who is incapable of standing on her own two feet. It’s a memory play with a fluid sense of reality. And most importantly – most powerfully – it’s a story best told on stage. Riverside Theatre’s production, smartly directed by Steven Marzolf, is staggeringly emotional and, somewhat surprisingly, incredibly funny.
The Glass Menagarie introduces us to the Wingfield family. Amanda (Jody Hovland) is the matriarch of the family, whose life went off the rails when she chose a husband who abandoned them. She lives in the past recalling a genteel Southern experience that doesn’t exist in St. Louis, Missouri. Her son, Tom (Jim Van Valen), is a frustrated poet who works in a factory to provide for his mother and sister and uses humor to mask his pain. Daughter Laura (Catherine Backer) has a slight physical deformity which in this production manifests itself as a limp and turned foot. She is painfully shy and the main action of the play centers around Amanda trying to secure a future (read: husband) for her daughter. Enter Jim (Aaron Weiner), Tom’s friend, who is invited over for dinner in the hopes that he will fall in love with Laura.
The acting in this production is consistently solid. Jody Hovland’s Amanda is a sad woman fighting desperately to keep the sadness from overtaking her. When she playfully flirts with Jim we can imagine her as a young woman courting her gentleman callers. Hovland’s Amanda is ferocious at times and childlike at times. Sometimes she’s ferociously childlike. There are many layers to Amanda, and Hovland does a fantastic job of presenting all of them.
Catherine Backer evokes pity and sadness with her portrayal of Laura. Her posture and movement changes completely when she’s nervous or upset, becoming iron straight and jerky. When she’s more comfortable – for example when she’s showing her menagerie of glass objects to Jim – she relaxes and allows us to see the woman Laura could have been under different circumstances. She often uses pauses before speaking to show how her fear forces her to carefully control the words she uses. It’s touchingly sad portrayal of a wounded woman.
Aaron Weiner’s Jim moves comfortably between amusement when reacting to Amanda and sweetness when talking to Laura. He is excellent at portraying the earnestness and humility of a man trying to reinvent himself after learning that being a big man on campus in high school doesn’t always translate into a successful life. Weiner excellently connects with Backer’s Laura, showing us another side to the fearful delicate creature we’d seen up to that point.
The final actor in this quartet is Jim Van Valen, who portrays Tom, the narrator of the piece. It is Tom’s perspective that permeates the play and the actor playing Tom can make or break this show. Fortunately, Van Valen is superb. The challenge of the narrator role is that he can appear too detached from the action, when in truth Tom is at the center of the play. Van Valen glides smoothly between the emotions of the past – a desire for a better life and frustration when his desire is thwarted – and the melancholy regret Tom feels as he reflects upon that past. In addition, Van Valen is a master at finding the humor of his character’s situation. Tom uses the humor as a coping mechanism, and Van Valen portrays that so effectively that when he explodes at Amanda, the intensity is that much more powerful. Tom’s emotion is what grounds us in the story, and Van Valen delivers a nuanced and heartbreaking performance.
The technical aspects of the show are wonderful as well, particularly Kristen Geisler’s lighting. The portrait of Amanda’s husband is illuminated on one wall whenever someone refers to him, bringing the character into the play while still keeping him at arm’s length. It’s an incredibly effective lighting choice. There are many other excellent lighting moments, particularly when Tom is in his narrator role. At times only his face is lit, adding to the melancholy mood. Scott Olinger’s set is also excellent, providing a delicate balance between reality and unreality, perfect for a memory play.
This is an excellent production of this classic play. If you’ve never experienced The Glass Menagerie, I encourage you to check it out. And even if you have seen it before, this top notch production with excellent acting is one you do not want to miss.