Chicago Theatre Review
Blow Out Your Candles
The Glass Menagerie – Jedlicka Performing Arts Center
Tennessee Williams’ self-entitled Memory Play launched his career as a respected playwright. It even premiered right here in Chicago, in 1944. Critically acclaimed, the play starred Laurette Taylor as Amanda in what many actors consider the most unforgettable performance they’d ever seen. This play is capable of touching the heart like very few other pieces of theatre. As a reminiscence, the play’s events are all orchestrated by Tom (the character representing a younger Williams), who moves in and out of the story. The play takes poetic license with the plot and stresses specific details, such as Laura’s glass collection; others are almost entirely eliminated, such as the actual family house.
While Director Mike Nedza’s production feels properly ethereal in its ghostly portrayal of the four characters, who weave in and out of the story, he’s chosen to represent certain nooks and crannies of the Wingfield’s St Louis apartment with sharp realism. Space and shadow occupy the rest of it. Images, dialogue and situations hit home. The play’s collective impact can be witnessed when audience members are seen wiping away tears at the curtain call.
In this production, beautifully highlighted by Mr. Nedza’s Victrola musical score, the playing area is often dimly-lit by the director’s own lighting design. Physical boundaries seem to suddenly appear and then mysteriously melt into the void. But always, Laura’s glass collection dominates on a small, tiered table filled with the reflective figurines. It serves as a metaphor for the play, a visual the audience will remember, long after the final curtain. At times, Nedza’s lighting causes her menagerie to glow, giving Laura’s sheltered life some sparkle; at other times the play’s illumination is a simple candelabra or the highlighted, framed portrait of their handsome but estranged father.
Tom is portrayed by personable, young Brian Zane. This clean-cut, articulate actor, the narrator of this story, wholeheartedly inhabits his role. Bored with a life that offers little creativity or intellectual stimulation, he works at shoe factory, while escaping his smothering mother by fleeing to the movies. In a gentle voice that commands attention with its fragile eloquence, Mr. Zane effectively paints pictures with Williams’ words, often making wise, selective use of silence. Mary Heffernan is perfection as Laura, Tom’s painfully shy, handicapped sister. She speaks, as does Zane, employing the natural rhythms found in Williams’ dialogue. Her dialogue almost sounds improvised and realistic. There’s never a false moment in Ms. Heffernan’s character and she beautifully inhabits the heart of Tom’s memories.
Nancy Hays’ Amanda is strong and bombastic when necessary, but knows precisely when to slip on the sticky, southern charm. Much like the recent revival that starred Sally Fields, Ms. Hays’ best scenes are her conversational, telemarketing monologues with her friends, along with her melodramatic, mock flirtation with the Gentleman Caller. This is when Nancy Hays truly shines as Tennessee Williams’ fading southern belle, a character who served as the prototype for such other heroines as Blanche DuBois. Once on a roll, particularly when lecturing Tom, this actress absolutely commands the stage. Colton Schied makes Jim O’Connor, the Gentleman Caller, a charismatic, enthusiastic and likable young man, who brings a tiny glimmer of hope and promise to Amanda, and eventually, to Laura. Schied’s honest embodiment of Jim is smooth and empathetic without ever being overbearing or patronizing.
Most theatergoers will most likely have experienced this groundbreaking play somewhere during their lives, if only in high school English class. This solid production stands out as a reminder of the poetic artistry of America’s greatest playwright. Tennessee Williams’ life is more closely mimicked in this 1944 Memory Play than in any of his later dramas. Amanda mirrors Williams’ own mother. Tom represents the playwright himself, but Williams’ shy, introverted personality is also seen in Laura. Tom tries to erase his sister from his tortured memory, but we know he’ll always be haunted. Like Tom’s memories of Amanda, Laura and her collection of glass, this brilliant production will linger in the memory long after Laura has blown out her candles.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 3-18 by JPAC, the Jedlicka Performing Arts Center of Morton College, 3801 S. Central Ave., Cicero, IL.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling 708-656-1800 or by going to www.jpactheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.