Tennessee Williams

The Glass Menagerie at the Ritz Theatre Company

March Madness came to the Ritz Theatre Company in the form of The Glass Menagerie. The show premiered on Broadway March 31, 1945. Its playwright, Tennessee Williams, was born in March 26, 1911. As alcohol played a role in the story, this run began just in time for St. Patrick’s Day. I attended the March 16th performance.

Director Matthew Weil is a boon for serious theatre fans. Mr. Weil has brought such legendary works as The Fantastiks, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Brighton Beach Memoirs to South Jersey stages. I relished the opportunity to experience his interpretation of an American classic: The Glass Menagerie at the Ritz. The director met the high expectations established by his reputation.

The Glass Menagerie told the story of a troubled family. The shy Laura Wingfield (played by Sara Viniar) lived a sheltered life. Aside from family, a Victrola and collection of glass animals comprised her only companions. Her brother Tom (played by Taylor Darden) aspired to become a writer. His warehouse job bored him. He longed to escape and pursue a life of adventure. Their mother Amanda Wingfield (Lori Howard) struggled to keep the family together. Circumstances made this quite a challenge.

In the wake of their father’s abandonment, the family appeared on the verge of disintegration. As Laura was either unwilling to or unable to support herself, Amanda understood that her daughter would need a husband to take care of her. Recognizing Tom’s need for “adventure” (and a fondness for alcohol) she worried that he’d leave the family the same way his father had. She made a deal with him. If Tom could find a suitor for Laura, Amanda would allow him to leave.

This premise reminded me a bit of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The characters expected an unknown stranger to enter their lives and fix everything. That’s not the best approach to addressing one’s problems. It does provide for some outstanding drama on the stage, however.

An editor of the Tennessee Williams Annual Review, Robert Bray, called The Glass Menagerie a “memory play.” He may not have been describing the story. I’m thinking he referred to the actors’ need to recall all of Williams’ “lyrical language.”

To test this theory I tried an experiment. I opened a copy of (the New Directions Paperbook Ninth Printing) The Glass Menagerie to a page at random. Looking at pages 50 and 51, three quarters of the text is stage direction. One line is Amanda’s. The rest is a page-and-a-quarter soliloquy that Tom delivers.

One always expects outstanding performances from a Matthew Weil directed show. Based on the previous quality of their work, one always expects that from the actors he selected. They all delivered wonderful interpretations of Mr. Williams’ tragedy.

Taylor Darden selected an excellent accent for the role of Tom. Mr. Darden delivered his lines in a slow Southern drawl. Depending upon the situation, at times that drawl morphed into a slur. The performer’s lanky gait made his character even more unique.

Sara Viniar turned in a heartbreaking interpretation of Laura. Her face displayed a sad look for which one couldn’t help but feel sympathy. The performer’s limping about the stage brought out even more pity for the character. All these traits made the character’s struggle to overcome her shyness much more powerful.

Lori Howard no doubt drew upon her real life experience as a mom in her role as Amanda Wingfield. Ms. Howard played the role so credibly that I felt like part of the Wingfield family. When she criticized Tom for his poor posture I sat up straight. During her final scene with Mr. O’Connor, she instructed his character to leave. Her tone of voice and angry facial expressions made me uneasy. That’s an excellent connection with an audience member.

Jared Calhoun played Jim O’Connor: the gentleman caller. Mr. Calhoun selected an excellent voice. It reflected his character’s proficiency at public speaking. He played well opposite Ms. Viniar when trying to coax Laura out of her shyness. Their chemistry together gave this poignant moment much more impact.

This run marked Melissa Harnois’ first endeavor as a Stage Manager. Ms. Harnois coordinated all the facets of this intricate production wonderfully; and the show contained a lot of components to synchronize.

In The Glass Menagerie the lighting became an integral part of the drama. It almost became a character in itself. Jen Donsky designed this critical feature very well. Technical Director Connor Profitt executed it without flaw.

Those with any interest in either classic American theatre or a family drama would enjoy The Glass Menagerie. Don’t follow Tom’s example by going to the movies. This run closes on March 31st. In the playbill Director Matthew Weil discussed the play’s themes of “decisions” and “regret.” South Jersey community theatre fans will regret making a bad decision of their own by not attending the show at the Ritz.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Haddonfield Plays and Players

I never would’ve thought it possible to combine themes like desire, dishonesty and the use of alcohol in the same story. I guess that shows I need to get out more often. So it was ironic, really, that I discovered a play with these themes during a night out. I attended the opening night performance of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof directed by Bill C. Fikaris at Haddonfield Plays and Players  on May 11th.

Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece explored the dynamics between members of a Southern family. I found it interesting that Mr. Fikaris applied the ‘family’ premise to casting. The show included a pair of sisters (Shae Harris and Shani Harris), a brother and sister (Harper Carney and Quinn Carney), a father and daughter (Gary Werner and Gabrielle Werner) and a mother and son (Amanda Frederick and Wesley Frederick). I thought it nice to see a mom and her son sharing the stage over Mother’s Day weekend.

Bill Gates once said, “If you are born poor it’s not your mistake, but if you die poor it’s your mistake.” Maggie (played by Ashley Griffiths) came to this realization herself. Then she applied it in a way Mr. Gates wouldn’t have approved. She married Brick (played by Ken Hellings): a former football player and the potential heir to Big Daddy’s fortune. With the patriarch’s health in decline, only three potential obstacles could prevent her from achieving her dream. They included Big Daddy’s other son Gooper (played by Benjamin Morris) and his wife Mae (Amanda Frederick), Maggie’s and Brick’s childlessness and Brick’s alcoholism.

Ashley Griffiths played a stellar Maggie. The show opened with inscrutability regarding the nature of hers and Brick’s relationship. Ms. Griffiths’ performance kept the audience guessing. In the opening scene at hers and Brick’s bedroom, I thought her a lovelorn vixen hungry for her husband’s attention. In the course of their conversation she expressed an interest in having a child; quite an interesting statement after ridiculing her nieces and nephews for having “no necks.” This revelation combined with her seductive charms intensified the sense of mystery.

Ms. Griffiths delivered her lines in a heavy Southern drawl. Her accent sounded more realistic than native Mississippians talked the last time I visited there. She managed to capture the dialect inherent in Williams dialog while still speaking in a way that I could understand.

The performer showed great skill in crying during the show’s climax. I won’t give away spoilers, but when one knows the reason, the action made Ms. Griffiths’ artistic choice much more impactful.

Ken Hellings brought the role of Brick to the stage. The character harbored bitter feelings regarding the death of a friend combined with resentment towards his wife. While ostensibly blaming “mendacity” as the source of his alcoholism, he drank to drown the pain. He delivered the best line in the show about imbibing until he got the “click” in his head.

Mr. Hellings delivered a superb performance pairing Brick’s anger with his alcoholism. Bringing the latter to the stage could prove quite a challenge for any thespian. From the way Williams crafted the character, Brick drank so much that he was more in danger of drowning than suffering the effects of cirrhosis. This character very well may have consumed more alcohol than Dr. Sloper in The Heiress.

This performer balanced Brick’s drinking with his rage well. I flinched when he broke one of his crutches after swinging it at his wife. Even though his character always drank, he still delivered his lines in a way I could understand. I liked how the slur in his voice gradually increased as the show progressed. I thought his acerbic, “Yes, sir” whenever Big Daddy asked him a question a nice touch.

In sports, managers always talk about having depth on the bench. The same goes for theatre. Due to unexpected circumstances, the actor slated to play Big Daddy couldn’t perform. Producer Pat DeFusco did an extraordinary job stepping in to play this crucial role. His deep, gravelly voice suited the character. Had it not been for the rare occasions when he glanced at the script, I wouldn’t have suspected him a (literal) last moment replacement.

The matriarch of the Brody Royal Family of South Jersey Community Theatre, Tami Brody, played a splendid Big Mama. The role entailed a range of emotions. Ms. Brody expressed happiness and relief to dealing with loss and her vulture-like relatives. While delivering lines like an authentic Southerner, the performer animated the character’s travails perfectly.

Benjamin Morris (as Gooper) and Amanda Frederick (as Mae) played Big Daddy’s son and daughter-in-law. They played a couple, to say it politely, very interested in their family’s financial future. Ms. Frederick and Ms. Griffiths seemed to compete as to which could play a greedy character better. As with any occurrence of friendly competition between performers, the audience ended up on the winning side.

The confrontation scene at the end of Act II made for the highlight of this show. It featured all the main characters arguing over the disposition of Big Daddy’s fortune. Big Daddy’s entrance towards the end of the scene made this dispute even more awkward. The performers took advantage of the opportunity to bring out their respective characters’ flaws; with the exceptions of Ms. Brody and Mr. DeFusco. They both demonstrated the humanity in their roles. It made for a terrific contrast.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof featured marvelous atmospherics. I liked the color scheme on the set designed by Bill Fikaris and constructed by Glen Funkhouser. The background and the bedsheets appeared the color of the sky during a sunset. The blue lights behind the curtains made them the same hue as a cerulean sky.

When presenting a live performance, most directors focus on appealing to senses of sight and sound. Mr. Fikaris chose to add an applicable smell. During the show, Ms. Griffiths lit a cigarette, Mr. DeFusco puffed a cigar and Mr. Werner smoked a pipe. While I abhor the scent of tobacco (well, at least since I quit smoking) it helped bring me into the story. It made me feel like I sat, to borrow a line from Hamilton, “in the room where it happens.” That’s one of the benefits of attending live theatre that a person doesn’t experience at the movies.

One incident in the show made me a little nervous. Ms. Griffiths took up a bow and arrow. She then performed a quick demonstration on how to use it. This took place just a few feet in front of me. Whenever an actor takes up a weapon in my presence I worry. Are Haddonfield Plays and Players trying to send me a message?

Performers Philip Kehoe and Emma Scherz rounded out the cast.

“Mendacity” may have been one of the show’s themes, but I’m telling the truth when I write that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was phenomenal. Maggie asked a rhetorical question about how long a feline could remain on the top of a dwelling. While that inquiry remained unanswered, the show will stay on Haddonfield Plays and Players’ stage until May 26th.

Book Review – Final Chapters: How Famous Authors Died by Jim Bernhard

It seems like every person who’s ever written something famous has died at some point. So many have, in fact that (the still living) Jim Bernhard decided to write a book about it. A tome regarding such a macabre topic as death may seem morbid to some. The writer still managed to present an interesting and many times entertaining take on those who have gone before us while leaving a lasting legacy of letters in their wake.

The author structured the book by presenting short biographical sketches of various writers. He began with the Greek playwrights and concluded with the late film critic Roger Ebert. In order to liven, no pun intended, the subject matter, the author added these writers views on religion along with some witty epigrams regarding their lives and work. While not a scholarly reference book it did contain many witty and amusing anecdotes; as well as sound advice. A very engaging read resulted.

The theme of rampant alcohol abuse permeated the book. Imagine that. Jack London was an alcoholic by the age of 15, which could explain why he didn’t live past 40. Notables such as Hemmingway, Fitzgerald and Tennessee Williams all possessed a legendary fondness for the bottle. Mr. Bernard explored some others’ experiences with it. In fact authors’ affectation for potent potables could be traced back to Geffrey Chaucer. Mr. Bernhard wrote, “So highly regarded was he by Edward II that he was granted a gallon of wine daily for life, possibly as a reward for an early poetical work.” (Loc 586) When warned about the dangers of his alcohol abuse just prior to his death, Miguel de Cervantes said, “Many people have told me the same thing, but I can no more give up drinking for pleasure than if I had been born to do nothing else.” (Loc 655) James Thurber provided my favorite thoughts on the subject. “’One martini is all right,’ he said, ‘two are too many, and three are not enough.’” (Loc 3368)

The author also included some interesting facts about the various writers he covered. For one, I didn’t know that Thomas Hardy invented the “cliffhanger.” In an early serialized novel an episode ended with a character physically hanging off a cliff. (Loc 2580) Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote the first use of the expression “willing suspension of disbelief.” (Loc 1445) Edgar Allan Poe only made $10 from “The Raven”. Dorothy Parker supposedly came up with all the following clichés: ball of fire, with bells on, birdbrain, face-lift, doesn’t have a prayer, scaredy-cat, the sky’s the limit, and wisecrack. (Loc 3319)

The myriad uses of humor impressed me the most about this book. The author provided an amusing take on Thomas Aquinas’ burial.

Thomas’ body was given to the Dominican order, and today most of it is in a gold and silver sarcophagus in the Church of St. Sernin in Toulouse, France—except his right arm, which is in the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome, and a bone from his left arm, which is preserved as a relic in the cathedral of Naples. Canonized in 1323, Saint Thomas now rests in pieces. (Loc 542)

Apparently, burials amuse Mr. Bernhard. He had comparable thoughts on Dante’s interment.

His body is buried in Ravenna, and the tomb erected for him in Florence in the Church of Santa Croce remains empty. Although the Florence City Council formally revoked his exile in 2008, there is no indication Dante plans to relocate. (Loc 578)

The book’s most entertaining passage described Voltaire’s deathbed.

On the morning of May 30, Gaultier and another priest came to his bedside to exhort him once more. They asked him if he believed in the divinity of Christ. Voltaire replied, “In the name of God, don’t mention that man to me again—and let me die in peace.” Asked to renounce Satan, Voltaire observed, “This is not the time to make any more enemies.” He expired at eleven o’clock on the evening of May 30, 1778. (Loc 1199)

Rabindranath Tagore (not covered in Final Chapters) wrote, “And because I loved life, I know I shall love death as well.” I don’t know that I’ll “love” it, but I sure enjoyed reading about it in Final Chapters. While witty, the book did include some serious thoughts on the subject. The follow from Marcus Aurelius seemed a fitting one with which to conclude this piece.

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones. (Loc 479)