When I think of “classic” theatre — the kind people read in high school English classes, for instance — certain assumptions come to mind. Older plays tend to be less flashy and exciting, sometimes slower and long-winded. So it was with some degree of trepidation that I went to watch The Glass Menagerie in its opening night performance on Friday.
Defying stereotype, the show was actually quite a treat to watch.
For those who aren’t familiar with the play, it’s a family drama that centers around two adult children each trying to find themselves under the watchful eye of their overbearing mother and the shadow of a long-absent father. Mother Amanda constantly relives her glory years as a sought-after young lady, while nitpicking at her children and fretting that they won’t have her idea of a successful life. Daughter Laura is afflicted with a limp and is terribly shy. And son Tom, who narrates the tale, chafes under his mother’s criticisms and dreams of escaping.
Again, it’s definitely not the high energy of RENT or the frantic drama of God of Carnage. There are long scenes of conversation between two people, sometimes intermixed with long moments of awkward silence. But despite the tendency for a show like The Glass Menagerie to end up a snoozefest, this production held my attention from beginning to end. I was surprised when intermission struck, and spellbound all the way until the final words.
An interesting twist on the original work, director Tim Ross chose to split the character of Tom into two roles: one for the older Tom recounting the story from his memory, and one for the younger Tom acting out the scenes while his older self watches and narrates. It was surprising to me at first, but it definitely works — scenes in which both are onstage together are particularly intriguing.
Ron McClelland was absolutely captivating from his opening monologue until the final bow; I hung on his every word, and found myself actually holding my breath and getting teary-eyed as he ended his narration. He set the contemplative and emotional tone of the play right from the beginning, and framed key events throughout with his narration or even just his presence.
Sultan Omar El Amin did well presenting a different, younger Tom, more full of angst and wanderlust, having not yet earned the perspective of his older self’s years. The distinction between the two was very good, letting us observe the older Tom’s emotional reaction to his past without pulling away from younger Tom’s in-the-moment reactions.
Jonavan Adams was charming and engaging as Tom’s friend Jim, invited to dinner without realizing the family machinations working behind the scenes. And Ericka Ross did what she could as Laura, in a role that by default isn’t meant to be very exciting; Laura is painfully awkward and quiet, not giving the actress a lot of opportunity to really shine, but Ms. Ross kept the character sympathetic and likable at least. These two characters dominated the second act, and watching them together was intimate and quiet in a stark divergence from the family squabbling of the first act.
That leaves Corlis Hayes as the mother Amanda… Anyone who’s ever had a mother with a strong personality will relate to this family. Amanda clearly wants the best for her children, even if her vision of “the best” doesn’t necessarily match theirs. She’s high strung and melodramatic, not afraid to rapidly alternate between guilt trips and wailing laments and angry diatribes in her ongoing attempt to mold her children into perfect offspring.
I wanted to strangle Amanda at least a dozen times during the production, especially in the first act. But I could also feel sympathy for the character, recognizing where she was coming from even as I cringed at the way she behaved. Whether you love Amanda or hate her — or more likely, both — you’re bound to have strong emotional reactions to Hayes as the character, which is certainly the mark of a strong performance.
The Glass Menagerie plays Thursdays through Sundays until April 3rd at Theatre Charlotte. Definitely go see it if you have the opportunity.