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Review: The Glass Menagerie

Tennessee Williams” “The Glass Menagerie” has always been a masterpiece of twentieth century drama, a compassionate, emotionally probing exploration of human sadness, longing and love. The empathy Williams felt towards his characters (who famously were representations of his own upbringing) comes across in the performances and direction in the new Maui Academy of Performing Arts production, playing now through November 9th at the Steppingstone Playhouse in the Queen Ka’ahumanu Center.

The approach by all involved is focused on the heart, not the angst, of the characters. I’ve seen productions of this play that came across as dark, depressing and lumbering. Here, director Sally Sefton and her cast and crew put emphasis on the humor and warmth inherent in the material. The plays deals with regret and abandonment but, because all involved are interpreting the material with such affection and not an ounce of mean spiritedness, an already rich play comes across as a touching ode to the universal struggle to play the roles life has dealt us.

Jefferson Davis stars as Tom Wingfield, the play’s narrator and Williams’ stand-in. A frustrated poet with a troubled home life, Tom’s affection for his crippled sister, Laura (Eva Sikes) and his mother (played by Peggy Harmon) is mixed with bitterness and longing for escape.

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While his sister is a shut-in and his mother attempts to half-heartedly sell magazine subscriptions, Tom works at a blue collar job that keeps him from pursuing his passion as a writer. The introduction of the fourth character, Jim (played by Dylan Bode), a “gentleman caller,” shakes up the hermetically sealed world in which the Wingfield’s exist.

Sefton has avoided every opportunity for histrionics and never pushes the actors nor the tone into melodrama, which isn’t easy. The material allows for on-the-nose interpretations of the internalized pain and anguish present in the characters, but no one on stage overacts or strains for emotion.

Sikes underplays Laura’s physical ailments (a smart move, as I’ve seen an actress once play the role with a Quasimodo-like limp). What makes the character so endearing is Laura’s tender spirit and Sikes is deeply touching at conveying the life and yearning for love that resides in her soul.

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Having Laura hunched over her glass collection, bathed in light, while Arvo Part’s “Spiegel im Spiegel” plays, is a masterful touch. If any one stage image sums up the beauty and loss that is present in Laura’s life, it’s this one.

Harmon’s performance is a master class on how to approach one of Williams’ great characters. Never allowing obvious choices or demonstrative acting to hinder her portrayal, Harmon simply nails the frustrating contrast of a mother who is full of encouragement towards her children, but pushes them too hard and is something of a child herself.

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Most of Davis’ scenes are shared with Harmon and they find the right tone of the fragile relationship between mother and son.

Bode has a pluck and presence that make him ideal for Jim. The role serves as Laura’s love interest and Sikes and Bode shine during their pivotal second act encounter.

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The sole distraction was the use of wrap around mikes that extended from the actors’ ears. The theater’s air conditioning system (which lets out an audible but not blaring hum) makes this a necessity. It took some adjusting at first, as the mikes are the sole visible reminder that we’re watching a play.

The set is well decorated and in keeping with the “memory play” approach. Window frames are hung against a black wall, a surreal vision that reminds us the story is unfolding as the narrator remembers it, not in a realistic fashion. The lighting is cleverly stylish, giving audiences the soft glow of a hazy dream as well as the allusion of outside and natural light sources.

The energy of the performances reminded me of a tea kettle under a burner, rising slowly at the beginning, then fully coming alive with clarity and depth of character. As a four-person play, the ensemble feeds off of one another. They create a winning balance of fashioning vivid figures and projecting the heartbreaking needs their characters can barely conceal.

This is a lovely, smartly crafted and compassionate take on one of Williams’ theatrical mainstays. I was moved by it, though the real tell-tale proof of its effectiveness came from my wife, who’d never seen this play before. As we left the theater, she could barely contain her tears.

The Glass Menagerie plays Oct 24th- Nov 9th at MAPA’s Steppingstone Playhouse at the Queen Ka’ahumanu Shopping Center. For Tickets, call 244-8760 or go to mauiacademy.org

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About Barry Wurst II

Barry Wurst II
Barry Wurst II is a senior editor & film critic at MAUIWatch. He wrote film reviews for a local Maui publication and taught film classes at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs (UCCS). Wurst also co-hosted podcasts for Screengeeks.com and has been published in Bright Lights Film Journal and in other film-related websites. He is currently featured in the new MAUIWatch Podcast- The NERDWatch.

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