Thursday, April 16, 2009

What I Liked about The Glass Menagerie, Part Two

Tom's opening monologue is only the beginning of Scene One. When he has finished speaking, the lights come up to reveal the Wingfield apartment as Amanda and her daughter Laura enter with dishes, and Amanda calls Tom to dinner. Early in rehearsals, this scene took on an importance to me that went beyond what is laid out in the text.

I had cast Lyla Hay Owen in the part of Amanda. Lyla is considered a legend in New Orleans theatre. That isn't really saying much. In New Orleans, every third other person on the street is a legend to somebody in this town. I live across the street from another New Orleans theatre legend. Her, I've seen in the morning without her makeup or foundation garments, and she doesn't deserve to be a legend, but Lyla is the real thing.

She was returning to the stage after a long absence and some personal tragedies, and it was imperative that I show her off to her best advantage. She deserved nothing less.

The problem I was perceiving had to do with Lyla's style. That style is flamboyant, dependent on poses and arm-flinging gestures, a barnstorming style. There's nothing wrong with that if it is anchored in the actor's conviction, and Lyla truly was convinced; but, being surrounded by three younger actors whose approach was internal, I worried that our audiences might be too aware of the dichotomy of styles onstage and find her out of place.

Of course, this shouldn't have been a worry. Williams often pits flamboyant, past-obsessed characters against others grounded in a contemporary reality. But I was still concerned.

The first scene of the play establishes Amanda's controlling machinations toward her children, then sends her off on an aria recalling one distant Sunday afternoon on Blue Mountain and a convergence of seventeen gentleman callers. Lyla delivered this speech with dance-step punctuations, coquettish glances, coy poses, and fluttering hands.

It was lovely movement, but I was afraid some people viewing it might find it to be too much, over the top, extraneous, even risible.

Until one rehearsal when I noticed that Keith, as Tom, was beginning to mock her. There he was sitting at the far end of the stage, and I saw him start to mouth her lines (this story was one Amanda often told) and ape her gestures. Eventually, he would leave his place and move to sit with his sister where he would continue to poke fun at her exaggerations. On his cross, he mimicked her walk.

Liz Mills, as his sister Laura, tried to stop him but was helpless in fits of giggles at his dumb show.

I think the first time he did this, it was just a bit of horseplay to pass the time, but it seemed right to me. As soon as I could, I told him privately to keep it up, even to feel free to go further with it, knowing he'd be incapable of going too far.

The mockery incited sympathy for Amanda and gave Lyla the framework she needed to validate Amanda's rococo flamboyance.

And because we were able to establish her character's muchness, the later poignancy of her simple act of listening to Laura's tale of a high-school crush in Scene Two and the heartbreak of her final maternal act of comfort-giving to her daughter after the devastation of the Gentleman Caller scene were simple and beautiful and wondrous to see.

3 comments:

  1. Hey Glenn,
    I found this a particularly interesting post. I've read many plays (and translated a few Greek ones), and the single biggest chunk of writing I ever did (my Master's thesis) revolved around some plays by Euripides (especially his "Cyclops"--shocker, eh?!). Anyway, I've never, as an adult, seen a play performed onstage, "live." I had to do a lot of reading about Greek theatre--my main focus was "philosophical" rather than "theatrical." I paid special attention (in my research) to writers who connected the physical dictates of the stage with the dramatic action and philosophical implications of the written work.

    I don't actually know this Williams play (well, only sorta...), but reading posts like this one is quite interesting to me (because my experience with "drama" is almost purely through the written word).

    Nicely done!

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  2. Thanks, Rick.

    I remember you mentioning once before that you'd never seen a play performed live. I kind of envy you that. I have seen some live, and nothing could have been more deadly.

    My own tastes (I'm pretty sure you may noticed) run toward the Greek or Elizabethan ideal: text, actors, audience. I'm drawn to the essential, everything else is part of the presentation - like in the way food is served in a high-priced restaurant.

    Still, when those three ingredients come together, it's ... what's another word for cathartic?

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  3. "Cathartic" was good enough for Aristotle...

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