On opening night the audience at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (CSC) greeted The Glass Menagerie with gales of laughter. That's so wrong — not wrong of the audience; they went where they were allowed to wander.
It's wrong of a production and performances that do not seize control, reveal the play's landscape and command suitable response by laying bare the aching heart of Tennessee Williams' lyrical masterpiece. There's little lyricism to CSC's Menagerie. And less tragedy.
Which is odd. Drew Fracher is a can-do stage director. Last season he proved his chops with back-to-back dazzlers: a lucent, elegant Tempest at CSC and a polished, ironically comic Opus for Ensemble Theater. History suggests that the problems besetting Menagerie (continuing at CSC for three more weeks) derive from curious directorial choices, not from lack of ability — either on Fracher's part or that of his actors, all four of whom have admirable accomplishments.
One perfectly pitched, exquisitely acted Act II scene did engage the audience and force them to listen with rapt, silent attention.
Wrapped in candlelight, shy, crippled Laura Wingfield (Corrine Mohlenhoff) and ambitious, amiably boorish Jim O'Connor (Chris Guthrie) reach toward each other's hearts and explore the play's yearning for connection. Inevitably, on the brink, reluctant Jim pulls away, leaving poor Laura to her sad little collection of glass animals and her ancient phonograph records.
The scene is Mohlenhoff's most varied and beautiful work in a season or two, and it demonstrates yet again what a past master of the actor's craft Guthrie is.
It's symbolic of the mismanagement of this Menagerie that the "gentleman caller" character — which Williams meant as a clunky counterpoint — should command greater empathy than Tom Wingfield, the idealized, tragic self-portrait at the center of the play.
CSC Artistic Director Brian Isaac Phillips cast himself as Tom. That might not have been the best plan. It meant, for better or worse, that Fracher was directing his employer. Who knows how that dynamic played out.
Further, concurrent with rehearsing The Glass Menagerie, Phillips was directing Take Me Out for New Stage Collective and dealing with a last-minute need to recast a leading character.
For whatever reason Phillips plays Tom as a pissed-off, self-absorbed oaf with the tragic amplitude of a shoebox. Little sense of angst undergirds his desertion of his blighted sister Laura and his silly, grasping mother Amanda.
As matriarch Amanda, a Southern belle who has been wrung out by fate, Irene Crist plays one set of emotions at a time — with little integration or nuance of one guise by another. Here she's a desperate, screeching harridan trying to hold a disintegrating family together. There she's a breathless, flirty, flouncy, over-the-hill ingénue left over from a lemonade summer.
In either mode the opening night audience viewed her as a riotous, Saturday Night Live caricature. At a guess, she's an abler performer than this outing demonstrates.
Williams' script calls for a filmy, insubstantial setting — gossamer as memory. Designer Will Turbyne (who has done much better) plunked down ugly furniture in a black void and lit it with jerky changes. Projections of pictures and titles score ironic points and a soundscape of music (Guthrie) supports the action intuitively.
These days first-night audiences stand up for card tricks. Nobody stood up at CSC. Seeing this production won't assure you that The Glass Menagerie is a pinnacle of the American theater.
THE GLASS MENAGERIE, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through March 16. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.