What I learned. . .

Give people an excellent script, cast the production well, do your homework, be given a generous rehearsal schedule, let an accomplished design team do its work – and then just stand back and get out of the way and chances are you’ll succeed.

This was not a new lesson by any means, but a great reminder. 

Directing this production of The Glass Menagerie (my second; the first had been over a decade ago at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre) proved to be one of the most satisfying and rewarding experiences of my career, simply because all of the above elements conspired and aligned themselves.  Not only did we have enough time to sink our teeth into the work, explore deeply, and be well prepared to open, we also got to rehearse in what we came to think of as the “Tennessee Williams Club House” – our own semi-private, dedicated rehearsal space in which we had almost all of our furniture and props to work with from the get go, and in which the eight of us – cast members Leslie Brott, Stephanie Lambourn, John Maltese, and Andrew Carlson;  Max Friedman (my wonderful assistant director/directing intern), Kate Ocker and Ellen (our stellar Stage Management team) and me – could rehearse this delicate piece of playwriting away from the customary hustle and bustle, noise and traffic of a very busy theatre company.

It’s a memory piece, and Matt Tibbs’ delicate sound design helped establish mood and tone from the very beginning.  The opening cue told us everything we needed to know . . .  or perhaps more accurately, what we should expect; delicacy, fragility, sentiment . . .  another time and place. Matt’s sense of cueing, and the subtlety with which he supported a particular moment or transition was dazzling.

Matt was part of a whole team of designers with whom I had worked many times (at Great River and elsewhere), and the entire production experience benefitted from the shorthand, trust, and communication we have developed over our long association.  Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz (lighting designer) and I just need to exchange a glance, a gesture, or a shrug of the shoulder to know what the other person is thinking; likewise, Meg Weedon (costume designer) and I understand each other’s taste and way of thinking about a script and the clothes that characters need to inhabit; and Nikki Kulas, properties director for the production and someone who ‘grew up’ at Great River, has become a refined and accomplished artist and artisan over her time working with us: her passion for getting the details right along with her sense of period has made her the perfect match for Eric Stone, our scenic designer whose attention to detail is legendary. Together they created a wonderfully detailed and haunting environment in which to bring Williams’ memory piece to life.

The Glass Menagerie is a play about love, and one of the things I learned about the play (especially after seeing Jim Edmondson’s astonishing production at Southern Oregon University earlier in the winter) was that the love between all of the characters is deep – and complicated. Laura and Tom are driven to do what they do (Tom to escape; Laura to retreat) by their mother’s often suffocating love. . .  but in a world in which the wolf is at the door (America in the 1930’s), a mother who has been deserted by her husband and left to fend for herself has little choice but to tug and push at her children lest they fall into the abyss.  And all the harder for that mother when she has been raised in far more genteel circumstances than the ones in which she finds herself . . .  a rural Southerner who finds herself abandoned in the urban heartland.  Part of our challenge – and a large part of what made the production so satisfying to me – was finding the love between all of the characters (including Jim O’Connor, the Gentleman Caller, who I think is genuinely drawn to Laura and rather charmed, if not smitten, by Amanda’s loquacious grace and vivacity). Throughout rehearsals we mined the script for its humor and affection, which only served to heighten the tension, anger, and heartbreak when it spilled into and out of the story.

Williams’ play changed the landscape of the American theatre and has taken its place alongside other great classics of playwriting in this country.  It was a gift to be able to bring this work to the Great River Shakespeare Festival –– a company known to celebrate great writing -- and to live with it once more for the fleeting time it was our privilege to do so.

The Glass Menagerie

Great River Shakespeare Festival

June, 2015

Andrew Carlson, Stephanie Lambourn

“A lovely production of The Glass Menagerie is the perfect complement to Shakespearean tragedy and comedy this summer at the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona.

“Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece, which opened last weekend at the festival, is carefully drawn by director Paul Barnes and beautifully acted by the cast of John Maltese, Leslie Brott, Stephanie Lambourn and Andrew Carlson.

“The play, about the down-on-their-luck Wingfield family of St. Louis, and mother Amanda Wingfield’s hopes for her son, Tom, and her shy daughter, Laura, is one of the great works of the American theater.  . . . the play’s examination of love fits nicely with the festival’s Shakespeare offerings, Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing.

“Coincidentally, of course, Tom Wingfield, who writes poetry, is referred to by his work colleague, Jim, as ‘Shakespeare.’

“It’s the arrival (and departure) of Jim, the long-hoped-for “gentleman caller,” that brings the story to a head.

“Brott is marvelous as the talkative mother who can’t put the past to rest, mixing humor, angst, gumption and sadness in a performance that at times dominates the stage.  She’s the mother we all recognize, at least in some ways, as our own.

“Lambourn is exquisite as Laura, confident enough to let her periods of silence and stillness convey everything that needs to be said about this girl.  The reverence with which Lambourn handles Laura’s high school yearbook is just one example of her detailed portrait.

“The interesting contrast comes with Maltese, whose Tom is somewhat morose, and Carlson’s Jim, who almost seems to be on uppers.

“The play turns on the sad and touching extended scene between Jim, the former high school star, and Laura, the girl who once worshipped him from afar.

“Adding to the atmosphere is the lighting by Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz, especially the way in which Laura’s glass menagerie seems at time to be lit from within.

“ . . .  the festival selected The Glass Menagerie because Williams’ American voice provides an interesting comparison with Shakespeare’s.  In that case, Williams, with the help of this fine production, does not suffer from the comparison.”

     Tom Weber

     Rochester Post-Bulletin