Amanda Wingfield, 1930s tiger mother. The matriarch in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, now playing at Theatre Three, fits the profile: overbearing, controlling and obsessed with pushing her adult children toward her idea of success.
She wants son Tom to work his way up in the St. Louis warehouse where he earns $65 a month as the family breadwinner. (He dreams of running away to sea and being a writer.) For daughter Laura, a shy girl with unspecified disabilities, Amanda wishes for “gentleman callers,” one of whom might turn out to be Mr. Right.
With every breath, Amanda, one of the most complex characters in American drama, plays director of her children’s lives. She corrects Tom’s posture as he sits at the dining table trying to write poems. She tells him how to chew his food and pours cream in his black coffee because “hot beverages cause cancer of the stomach.”
Amanda has enrolled Laura, childlike but older than Tom by two years, in a secretarial course. But at the top of the play we learn that Laura has dropped out, spending her days wandering parks and museums, afraid to tell her mother she’s failed.
Amanda Wingfield doesn’t know it, but we do: Nothing she wants for her kids will come to pass. Laura’s hope of romance with an old high school crush will fade quickly. Tom will abandon his family, just as his father, the telephone man “who fell in love with long distance,” did 16 years earlier.
The Glass Menagerie is Williams’ semi-autobiographical “memory play.” Looking back on his life from a distance, Tom regards his mother and sister as eccentric ghosts whom he loved and loathed. The play presents them the way he wants us to see them. By the end, there should be sympathy and relief that he has escaped a smothering mother and clinging sibling.
But things look different from our modern perspective, where tiger mothers are revered and disabled sisters aren’t locked away in shadow. Now don’t we admire Amanda? For all her bossiness and drawling talk of “graces and airs” of bygone days, she is a smart, lovely fading Southern belle trying her level best to motivate Tom and Laura to do something with their lives.
Amanda Wingfield has been played in other recent productions as a monster, a depressive, a busybody and a roaring Amazon. So it’s interesting to see that Theatre Three director Bruce Coleman’s choice for the role is veteran comic actor Connie Coit. She’s petite, barely 5 feet tall, with a chirpy voice that, as Amanda, she lets dissolve into girlish, musical giggles. Opposite her as Tom and Laura are two tall and determinedly serious actors, Nordic blond Blake Blair and broad-shouldered brunette Allison Pistorius.
With Amanda playing for comedy and the others going for tragedy, the tone is confused. But it’s the height disparities that present real problems. Arguing face to face with his mother, Blair’s Tom Wingfield has to crouch or kneel in front of her, otherwise he’s two heads higher. Pistorius’ Laura looks toned and healthy, even if her hair is hanging limply from barrettes, but she’s a foot taller than Coit, too. It’s hard to light and block scenes when actors’ heads are in different stratospheres.
Lighting is a letdown throughout T3’s production. Designer Lisa Miller keeps all the characters lost in murky gloom. The second half of the play, in which Gentleman Caller Jim O’Connor (Sterling Gafford) spends time alone with Laura in the candlelit parlor, never places both actors in a pool of light together. As it’s Laura’s big scene — Jim charms, encourages, waltzes and kisses her before letting her know he’s not available — it’s a shame the audience can’t see the flickers of happiness and then sick disappointment on the face of the lovely Pistorius. After the kiss, she allows Laura one unrestrained, joyous burst of laughter. Perfect. (Just using a larger candelabra, instead of the puny little three-stem one from prop master Michael Spencer, might have let Miller cheat the lighting better.)
Director Coleman has set this Glass Menagerie to music, another distracting element. Odd bits of soundtrack waft in and out, interrupting dialogue and causing awkward pauses. Coleman has also designed the scenery, an ugly hodgepodge of furniture spread broadly across two levels of T3’s in-the-round acting space. Side tables serve no purpose. Little throw rugs seem haphazardly placed. Nothing about it says shabby or claustrophobic, which the Wingfields’ tenement apartment must be, as described by the playwright.
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Do Theatre Three’s actors get it across, this journey into Tom Wingfield’s misty water-colored memories of the way things were? Yes, mostly. Coit plays it strictly for laughs, and she gets big ones with the timing of her pauses and flouncy gestures. When she appears in Amanda’s old yellow cotillion gown for the Gentleman Caller scene, she pauses, arms outstretched, like Carol Burnett in the Gone with the Wind sketch. Engaged in verbal battles with Blake Blair’s Tom, Coit’s Amanda looks like Tweety Bird taking down a T-Rex.
As it was in the hit 2013 Broadway revival of this play (which brought a Tony nomination for former Dallas actor Brian J. Smith as the Gentleman Caller), the gentle seduction scene between Jim O’Connor and Laura is the heart of the piece at T3, too. Sterling Gafford, who made his Dallas theater debut to much acclaim earlier this summer in Uptown Players’ The Nance, takes his time and speaks in conversational tones in what’s essentially a 30-minute monologue opposite the terrified Laura. Gafford doesn’t overplay a bit of it. Unlike Blair, who hasn’t yet locked onto what makes Tom Wingfield so angry, Gafford lets his heart but not his acting show.
Too bad Coleman has Gafford sitting with his back to half the audience for most of that beautifully written scene. And in the dark.
The Glass Menagerie continues through August 23 at Theatre Three, 2800 Routh St. (in The Quadrangle). Tickets $25-$50 at 214-871-3300 or theatre3dallas.com.