Broken Glass, Broken Lives

Quintessential Productions Stages A Finely Etched Performance Of Tennessee Williams' Classic.

By Dave Irwin

TWENTY-SOMETHINGS in dead-end jobs, still living at home; dysfunctional single-parent households; family fights over lack of ambition, direction, the future, leavened by moments of personal compassion: Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie still holds surprisingly relevant themes.

Review Quintessential Productions' latest work breathes new life into this old war-horse while remaining unflinchingly faithful to Williams' original writing. Set in the 1930s and first produced in 1944, The Glass Menagerie was Williams first major stage success. Williams script is often clumsy, burdened by autobiographical details and telegraphing its punches in obvious symbolism. It's filled with soliloquies that make it an actor's showcase, but which also slow the pace of interaction between the four characters. In seven scenes, the play follows its protagonist's frustration with work and home, while his mother seeks to assure a better future for him and his painfully shy, crippled sister.

Director Brian Kearney plays the lead role of Tom Wingfield. He brings an appropriately seething anger as well as a welcome warmth to his ambivalent relationship with his mother, Amanda, played by Eini Johnson. The honest range of their interactions, from vicious screaming to gentle amusement, is the source of many of the production's best moments.

Johnson gets the plumb role of gritty dowager in Williams' first stage exploration of the woman in decline who mirrors the decadence of the Deep South, a character he'd exploit with increasing skill throughout his career. Johnson plays this catalytic centerpiece with a nice mix of maternal instinct, scatterbrained determination and a gleeful dearth of self-awareness. Her long speeches find a convincing rhythm, with just a hint of the required Southern accent.

David H. Silverstein brings a rakish glibness to the role of the smarmy friend who Tom brings home to meet his sister at his mother's behest. The interaction is complicated by the fact that Laura has secretly loved her brother's friend from afar since high school, while all are unaware that he is already secretly engaged. His prospects have faired little better than Tom's, despite ambitious night school classes in public speaking and radio engineering in preparation for the rise of television (an unintended irony by Williams, since TV would soon destroy the daily importance that the stage and movies played in American life). Silverstein's vocal delivery is the most natural of the cast, giving a breezy casualness to his role as a washed-up jock and would-be scoundrel.

Laura is played by Laura Ann Herman. Despite her highly expressive face, she seems somewhat awkward in the body language of extreme introversion, acting mostly from the shoulders up. She plays the relationship with her mother in overwrought anguish, which works only when we remember that the action here is filtered through Tom's memory; such constant near-hysteria would not be believable otherwise.

Herman's best scenes are at the end with her gentleman caller, as she blossoms beyond her one-note isolation, only to be shut down when his unavailability is revealed. In those scenes, her portrayal of the character's painful loneliness and lack of any future is emotionally transfixing, especially in the heavy handed symbolism of Williams' final tableau as she extinguishes the candles lighting the stage.

Quintessential Productions, founded by Laura Ann Herman as a not-for-profit educational venture, it is staking out a niche of small-scale classics in its cozy, recent residence on South Fifth Avenue near downtown. The upcoming season will include works by J.B. Priestly, Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw and August Strindberg, not to mention Jean-Paul Sartre's existential touchstone, No Exit. Formed last September, the company moved into its new space in January, where it immediately opened with a children's production of The Pied Piper. It plans to continue a children's theater focus as part of its overall mission.

Beyond its appeal to the company, The Glass Menagerie, in fact, was shrewdly selected to take full advantage of the new theater's minimal lighting grids, since the script explicitly calls for dim, unrealistic lighting. Upgraded with resources initially unanticipated, the lighting by Guy Anderson and production design by Dylan Smith are an effective underpinning to the highly focused interplay. The set is likewise true to Williams' extensive proscriptions.

Kearney also directed the new company's first play, Laura. As a professional actor in Scranton, Pennsylvania, he studied under Jason Miller, a seasoned veteran (best known as the young priest in The Exorcist), who returned to Scranton to escape the Hollywood scene and practice his craft.

The care and concern of this company was apparent after the preview performance reviewed here, as Kearney and the crew talked extensively about how to fine tune an already satisfying performance.

In a final sentimental note, the "fifth character" in the drama, the absent father/husband who is "portrayed" on stage by a mere portrait, is played by a photo of Brian Kearney's real-life father, William J. Kearney, Sr., who died just after his son left Pennsylvania to seek his fortune here in Tucson. TW

Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, directed by Brian Kearney and produced by Quintessential Productions, continues at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through June 20, with 4 o'clock Sunday matinees on June 14 and 21. The theater is located at 118 S. Fifth Ave. Tickets are $10, with discounts for seniors, military and students. Call 798-0708 for information.

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