Saturday, April 18, 2009

What I Liked about The Glass Menagerie, Part Three

I never missed The Glass Menagerie's final scene - Scene Seven, the Gentleman Caller Scene. I believe that scene of the play was perhaps the most visually beautiful and the most delicately acted scene I have ever placed onstage.

In it, Jim O'Connor, a former high school classmate of both Tom and Laura, has been invited to the Wingfield home for a dinner that Amanda hopes will be the nudge to his courtship of her daughter. Of course, this is the night the electric company chooses to turn off the lights since Tom has used the money intended for the bill to buy his way into the Union of Merchant Seamen. The stage is plunged into darkness, and Amanda lights "this lovely old candelabrum that used to be on the altar at the Church of the Heavenly Rest" before sweeping Tom away into the kitchen and leaving Jim and Laura alone.

And in candlelight and silence, it began.

Liz Mills, who was playing Laura, Leon Contavesprie, our Jim O'Connor, and Keith were long-time friends who had studied and acted together before. They were the three people who had come to me with the suggestion of presenting The Glass Menagerie during the run of the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival. It was on the strength of their casting that I presented the project to my producers. They were responsible for its being done.

They had trained together at the same university, Leon as a graduate student, Keith and Liz as undergrads. The training they'd received had given them a technical proficiency that set them on a higher shelf than the one occupied by pleaser-performers. I might even say they could be profoundly technical.

I had worked happily with Keith and Liz before, but never with Leon. During the early rehearsals, we spent a lot of time just reading the script. It was going to be a while before we had access to a space where we could put it on its feet. Nevertheless, this didn't bother me. I intended the physical production to be simple - mine usually are. I rely less on action than on acting, and read-throughs give me the opportunity to begin to sense how the actors view their roles and to study the relationships they are forging with their co-players. I'm able to figure out in which directions I may want to push or pull them, how to incorporate their personal feelings and opinions of their acting partners into the staging. A Romeo and Juliet who personally despise each other can make for an electrifying balcony scene.

Keith and Liz had come to trust me as a director. They privately assured Leon I'd be an easy mark. They told him I'd give him free rein.

But I didn't.

Perhaps I was wrong (I don't think so), but I thought Leon came in to early rehearsals with too polished a conception, prepared with too little thought. He was ready to play the Gentleman Caller, but he didn't yet know who Jim O'Connor might have been.

(This is an example of what can happen when a role is in the hands of a technically proficient actor. The actor's technique can make it appear that he is presenting a true characterization when, in fact, there are no shadows present, there is no depth; there is only veneer. Technique should be a buttress for the actor or a springboard, a supporting thing that enables him to communicate his intended interpretation of the text to his audience. Relax and nuzzle into it, get comfortable in its surroundings, and it will function like an overstuffed lounging chair and induce sleep. For the actor, not necessarily the audience.)

Whenever we'd get to his scenes, I'd stop and challenge him. He'd start again, get a little further, then I'd stop and challenge him again. The scene with Jim and Laura began to take up so much time, we reserved special nights for them alone. Keith and Lyla could take time off, Leon and Liz would work.

I understand he soon thought Kieth and Liz had set him up by telling him I'd be easy, but, luckily for me, he appreciated my attention. I think he did. I'd like to believe he did.

The rehearsals with Leon and Liz came to be uproariously funny. Their scene together is not humorous, but we laughed like fools. I cannot fathom why we behaved the way we did, why we thought we had to annihilate Laura's delicacy and Jim's self-confidence; but I know we did have to respond to the scene in that manner, and I know what that treatment accomplished because I was to see it every night in performance. Through some kind of instinctual response to the material, we were stripping away the patina with which time and previous productions had coated the characters. We were getting to know them as they were.

Up until this scene, Laura might be fragile as spun glass, but she is not broken. We see that break when it happens. Williams puts it smack at center stage where we cannot miss it, at a moment when we cannot look away. Jim, on the other hand, enters the play already broken, but not knowing it.

Yes, broken. The way a horse is broken in the process of its training when it comes to realize its relationship to its rider. Jim had been a top high school athlete, the lead in The Pirates of Penzance, now he is another nail in the same shoe factory where Tom works. Unlike Tom, he is a convert to the American Dream and takes night courses in electronics and the art of influencing people. Some day, if he doesn't die in World War II looming just around the corner of the coming years, he will retire with a gold-plated watch and his memories. We are left to wonder if those memories will include his long-ago, short visit with a funny girl named Laura.

This is all there in that one crucial scene, buried under the surface for the audience to mine it, if it will; but how was I going to have these two special actors play the goddamn thing?

As simply and as quietly as possible.

I wanted to focus the audience's attention on two tiny people sitting on the floor of a darkened stage, lit by candles and a faint blue glow. I wanted awkward silences, soft speech (the kind you use during a power outage when you become aware of the soundlessness surrounding you), and rare movement. These things are not easy for actors to deliver. Actors instinctively want to act, not be still, not be. It takes a level of trust a director has to earn.

I think I may have managed to earn it, because what I saw onstage was pure and limpid, two young people thrown together, gradually revealing to each other their past acquaintance, exposing their hearts to one another, establishing trust - before any imagined, hoped-for future is dashed to the ground and left broken like Laura's glass unicorn.

Unforgettable moments:
  • Jim, trying to break the ice with Laura by offering her a stick of chewing gum. Yes, chewing gum. It was boylike and touching.
  • Laura, struggling never to look into Jim's eyes. (Liz told me later this was the direction that unlocked the scene for her. She gives me too much credit.)
  • The way Jim wallowed in Laura's admiration of his singing and the funny way he signed her preserved souvenir program of the old Gilbert and Sullivan operetta he'd performed in in high school.
  • The waltz when Jim insists that Laura dance with him after she has declined, saying she will step on him, and he replies, "I'm not made of glass." In that one line, Jim became all chivalrous maleness.
  • The freedom Laura begins to experience while dancing just before she twirls into the table bearing the unicorn, sending it flying.
  • Jim's apologetic sorrow, culminating in the slow, slower, slowest, almost imperceptible movement of their two bodies toward one another and into a brief kiss. (The tension behind this movement into the kiss was excruciatingly expectant. Imagine what I experienced at the final performance when their two lips met two beats too soon!)
  • Jim's horror at what he has done by kissing Laura, and his devastating confession that he can never see her again because he is already engaged. Laura's response: silent, expected, accepting, her blank affect revealing her final psychic wound.
  • Jim's awkward line to Amanda, "I hope it don't seem like I'm rushing off." The cast had questioned the grammar. Would Jim really say those words? To me, they revealed his Achilles' heel, the fact that he was not yet what he intended himself to be. Here was a man in the process of becoming something. Would he go forward or would he revert?
What was left after this? Just for Laura to blow out her candles.

Going into this show, I'd expected Liz to be a fine Laura. I did not expect her to break my heart as irrevocably as she did. She was incandescent in the role, as close to it as Williams could have imagined. No one can ever convince me otherwise. After we'd closed, I asked her to promise to let me direct her Amanda when it came time for her to take up that part.

Going into this show, I'd never expected to care for the Gentleman Caller. I'd figured Leon could make it work with his eyes closed, but we'd both kept our eyes open, and Leon created a figure of mystery and challenge, one who stood on equal footing with the overwhelming personalities of Amanda, Tom, and Laura, someone who possessed his own story, as worthy of a potential future as the other three.

Sometimes, I think, the stars, they just align themselves, and we should simply acquiesce to what is happening and trust that what will be will be all for the best.

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