BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
Is there a play more familiar to American audiences than The Glass Menagerie? Choreographer Jane Comfort doesn't think so. "We all had to perform in or attend a high school production of The Glass Menagerie," says Comfort, who has turned that familiarity to her advantage.
Faith Healing "takes the story line of Tennessee Williams' play … as its point of departure," says a description on the website of Jane Comfort and Company. "The company's approach to the play is a distillation of elements, focusing on the musicality and rhythm of language, the telling psychology of movement and the visualization of fantasy."
Comfort's New York-based modern dance company will perform the 90-minute work Saturday as part of the Florida Dance Festival. Through text and movement, the cast of five tells the story of delicate Laura, her faded Southern belle mother, Amanda, and her rebellious brother, Tom. Williams' autobiographical play depicts their disastrous dinner with Jim, the gentleman caller.
Faith Healing was a success when it was first performed in 1993, and Comfort revived it this season, which happens to coincide with the 2011 centennial of Williams' birth. Returning from the original production is Mark Dendy, who, in a bit of gender reversal, plays Amanda, a role made famous on stage and film by the likes of Laurette Taylor, Katharine Hepburn and Joanne Woodward.
"Mark is playing Amanda 17 years later," Comfort says. "Now he just turned 50. Everything he has lived in those 17, 18 years he has brought to the stage this time. It's amazing how honest he is in his portrayal."
In the play, Tom seeks solace by going to the movies, and Comfort uses clips from a variety of movies to illustrate the fantasy life of the characters. For example, Laura and the gentleman caller have a scene as Lois Lane and Clark Kent in Superman and lip-synch to the movie's soundtrack.
Faith Healing requires performers who can both act and dance. "There's movement throughout. But there's text throughout, too," Comfort says. "So it has to be someone who can toggle back and forth."
Comfort is known for incorporating text into her choreography. "My style shifts with each piece," she says. "It's whatever the narrative calls for. Some of the movement in this piece comes from the way modern dancers were moving in the early '90s. It has a little contact, improv-based movement. There's a roller-skating scene."
Gender-bending, movement plus text, movie clips, roller skating — Faith Healing sounds like a heady mashup. Why does Comfort think it works?
"The structure of the story is wonderful, and there's so much heart," she says. "It keeps shifting and throwing you off in kind of a delightful way. There's a childlike delight in it because of the fantasies. There's always movement that is either supporting the text or subverting it."
Comfort says that even diehard Williams fans have found they enjoyed the freewheeling approach of Faith Healing. "Sometimes people say, 'I thought this was the worst idea I'd ever heard. Now I can't imagine seeing a traditional Glass Menagerie again,' '' she says.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.