Boxcar Theatre has mounted an innovative, very successful new interpretation of Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie in their black box theater South of Market. In their small, intimate space they have even added six more characters to the original four, serving to flesh out and humanize the stereotyped symbols that Williams wrote about. On a stage configured as a runway with audience on two sides, Boxcar’s Artistic Directors Peter Matthews and Nick A. Olivero have opened up Williams’ play with sympathy, providing greater insights to the lives of the desperate Wingfield family and their “gentleman caller.”
Thomas Lanier Williams wrote autobiographically about Tom Wingfield, son of a proud, genteel Southern woman and a distant father. Williams’ father did desert the family and they did live in St. Louis, Missouri, where the play is set. Thomas did work in the shoe business, as does Tom. Thomas’ sister Rose did have a disability, as does Laura Wingfield in the play. Williams’ stage directions describe it as a “memory play.” Boxcar has taken this to heart and run with it.
The Shadows of memory
The shadowy lighting and additional characters filter the surreal show through Tom’s memory, subject to guesswork and subconscious distortions. Mother Amanda Wingfield, a vivacious woman clinging feverishly to memories of a vanished past, is also portrayed by a “Shadow Amanda” (Maggie McCally acting smug and flirty) who is mute, as are the other two shadow characters, Shadow Laura (Lauren Doucette) and Shadow Tom (Peter Matthews). These three barefoot characters seem to be earlier, perhaps more stable representations of the Wingfields.
On a bare set with moveable stools for furniture and only four props, the delicate animals of Laura’s glass menagerie are mimed, as are other bits. The ingenuity of this production lies in the wordless interactions between the shadows and the distraught Wingfields. For instance, while Laura protests her innocence to her mother for dropping out of business school, using shyness as an excuse, her shadow sits on the stage deck and pretends to fixate on playing with something small and fascinating.
Later, when gentleman caller Jim (Nick A. Olivero) joins Laura in her fantasy world, he participates in her belief in the imaginary animals. Olivero’s aggressively unctuous character clumsily breaks her favorite one. His regret does not read as being genuine, whether by production design or because of monotonal acting, but she mimes giving the figurine to him as a parting gesture.
The marvelously complex staging of this show holds interest intensely, despite some audience views of characters’ backs and shoulders, inherent in a strip-style set. Having the shadows react to their real selves heightens the emotions of anger and disillusionment, while extending Williams’ metaphors of uncertainty and melancholy.
Many times the shadows merely observe the meager family living room, but sometimes they interact with their real characters, but only with themselves, not with others. For instance, Shadow Laura and Laura Wingfield (played sympathetically but not as pitiable by Hannah Knapp) sit on the floor to play together with their imaginary animals. Sometimes the shadows mirror what their namesakes are doing, such as when Shadow Amanda stands beside Amanda (Suzan A. Kendall) and points to the door along with her as she commands Tom to leave.
Boxcar adds live music performers
The Wingfield apartment is across an alley from a 1930s music hall. The music and patrons of the play script are heard and talked about but never seen. Boxcar has added live music in the form of the incidental characters the Jones sisters, in slinky shiny dresses and red shoes. Williams called for music to be played at certain points. These Andrews-like sisters swing in a tight chorus line. Ruby Jones (Linnea George) plays violin, sometimes sweetly and sometimes discordantly. Expanding the cast in this small space is a daring concept.
As Tom (Brian Trybom) explains, Williams intended the play to be ambiguous and indistinct, like memory. This low-level lighting and the character doubling give a dreamy quality. Despite the dimness, the actors’ faces are always clearly visible and they stay in character. A major part of the ingenuity of this rewrite is that the shadows are obviously the characters they follow, even to the Lauras wearing very similar dresses, but the shadows also have their own personalities.
Where mother Amanda Wingfield is charming and laughable, her shadow is not pathetic but strong. Tom’s alter ego looks on helplessly, seeing the tragedy and unable to stop it. Shadow Laura acts like a devoted big sister to Laura’s withdrawn crybaby.
“Tenn Will” in a new light
Reinterpretations of classic plays are a mark of acceptance in the pantheon of great authors. Boxcar has added more depth in a modernist or cubist style, showing facets of the characters from skewed angles, thereby expanding our understanding of who these people are. In just over two hours, we get the characters plus their back-story, developing for us complex new dimensions.
The Glass Menagerie continues through August 27 at Boxcar Theatre, 505 Natoma Street, San Francisco. Tickets ($20 to $25) are available online at Boxcar Theatre, by emailing [email protected] or by phone at 415.776.1747.