Tuesday, September 25, 2018
Stage

Glass half full in Freefall Theatre’s take on ‘The Glass Menagerie’

ST. PETERSBURG — Freefall Theatre moves back into its old performing space with The Glass Menagerie, the early Tennessee Williams masterpiece. The adjacent auditorium had served well enough during repairs to a storm-damaged roof, but going back to the studio darkness of the theater’s original space is welcoming.

Directed by Freefall artistic director Eric Davis (who also designed the video and sound), this show zeros in on a particular facet of narrator and central character Tom Wingfield’s opening line: "Yes, I have tricks in my pockets."

He stretches out his hand and his mother and sister appear as compliant props in a magic trick, ready to be brought to life. The Depression-era apartment they all share is a slice of hell, a war zone as volatile as the Spanish revolution going on across the ocean, an allusion made by the narrator and one of many concomitant video snippets broadcast on the walls.

Before it’s over, family members will clash far more often than they bond, and the "gentleman caller" they entertain will affirm them in gauzy platitudes that mean little. Yes, it’s dark place, but magical things can happen there.

Visual cues by set designer Steven K. Mitchell establish competing themes. A portrait of a smiling man in a gray suit suggests stability; the fact that he abandoned his wife and children does not. A fire escape offers the only way out, but shadows of neighboring staircases crush against each other like an abstract painting. One person’s "escape" is the next one’s imprisonment.

The magic motif reoccurs a few times in the show. Tom gestures as he addresses the audience, and a whooshing freezes the others in a tableau as motionless as his sister’s glass figurines. Perhaps it’s a commentary on theater itself, including what we are all doing watching this play that premiered in 1944. Answers were not forthcoming, as this device occurred a few times in the first act and had only a brief corollary in the script. It just sort of hangs there, an ambiguity that is either brilliant, mildly annoying or both.

There is undeniable magic in Stephanie Lynge’s performance as Amanda Wingfield, a Southern belle and church lady and the only character written with a full range of emotions. Lynge eats up the room, suffocating her adult children and shrinking the space around them. She is both grand and tragic, able to work her strengths and flaws on others at will. Desperation seeps into her voice and body language even when sashaying and reminiscing about bygone glories. She is a well cast, mesmerizing core of the show.

Robert Glauz embodies a somewhat understated Tom, for which we can mostly be grateful. At times, such as a monologue about why he escapes to the movies, his manner seems languid, almost tossing off Williams’ breathtaking sentences as if they were throwaway lines. He could be reflecting a repressed man whose passions have been driven underground by forces around him, which would be a plausible choice.

Ali Foley also comes up big as Laura Wingfield, Tom’s introverted sister who collects glass knick-knacks. She inhabits the part physically and in shattering waves of anxiety, particularly when forced to greet the gentleman caller sent to rescue her family. Michael David plays that amiable gentleman Jim, a former high school sports star who still dreams big, despite being reduced to a warehouse shipping clerk’s job. His positive thinking, inspired in part by the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, could have come from contemporary self-help books, and the contrast David brings both with the family and his former fame is bleak and unsparing.

This show pays homage to a great playwright by letting his characters breathe, exhaling their joys and troubles in beautiful language, and Lynge’s performance makes the biggest difference in its success.

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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