What I learned. . .

The Glass Menagerie was one of the first free-lance assignments to fall my way after leaving my position as Conservatory Director/Associate Artistic Director at PCPA Theaterfest in the fall of 1997.  Joe Hanreddy, then AD at the Rep, was kind enough not only to offer me the play, but to hand pick an exceptional cast of MRT company members: the late, great Rose Pickering (Amanda Wingfield), Kirsten Potter (Laura Wingfield), and Brian Vaughn (Jim O’Connor), all of whom I was familiar with: Rose from her summer seasons at PCPA; Kirsten and Brian, from their work at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, where I had directed them both. Joining this talented trio was an actor new to me but not to the Rep: Arthur Hanket, who was based in Los Angeles and had guested-in for a couple of recent MRT productions, who took on the role of Tom Wingfield.  Arthur seemed ideally cast: he spanned the age range required of this memory piece, moving fluidly from recollection to active participant, and brought not just a gift for Williams’ poetic language, but an explosive volatility that helped get to what I felt lurked beneath Tom’s anguished but restrained surface.  Rose, who was a force of nature on stage and off, brought formidable comic skill to her work as Amanda, which meant that we warmed to her and fell all the harder when the bottom dropped out. Kirsten Potter, herself no shrinking violet, found a kind of quiet resistance and resilience within Laura, and helped make her more than a mere victim in the piece, although that inner strength was never enough to help Laura rise above the circumstances of her upbringing and her mother’s relentless expectations.

But I think it was working with Brian Vaughn on the role of Jim O’Conner that was most revelatory for me and that helped make this production – my only outing with the play, so far at least – even more exceptional.  I was struck early on by the rather prosaic name of Jim’s fiancée, “Betty”, as contrasted with the far more poetic name, “Laura”, and felt that as much as Laura was touched by her encounter with Jim and his kind attention toward her, that Jim, in turn could be affected by a kind of unexpected magic or poetry with which he came into contact in the famous, climatic after-dinner scene in the play’s second act.  I wanted Jim to fall in love a bit with Laura, to be as touched and moved by her in his way as she was with him. . .  for him to sense or realize some possibilities within himself that he might not have known existed prior to having dinner with the Wingfields and re-making Laura’s acquaintance.  I thought the potential for heartbreak in the scene increased exponentially if Jim was not just wisecracking and self-absorbed. . .  if his sort of “oh, this will be easy. . . I’ll just spend a few minutes with the girl” confidence was a little shaken by their encounter.

I think we succeeded in our approach.  Feedback from critics, audiences, and friends who saw the production seemed to indicate that we did, and I think the “Gentleman Caller” scene, as it is known, had much to do with the freshness and electricity with which the production was credited.

Add to that an excellent design team (Joe Varga, sets; Helen Huang, costumes; Kenton Yeager, lights), and I could not have asked for a better launch to the free-lance phase of my directing career.  I left Milwaukee feeling fulfilled and grown, only to quickly learn the meaning of thorough preparation (or lack thereof) when I arrived in Newark, Delaware to begin rehearsals there for Othello with the MFA acting students in the University of Delaware’s PTTP actor training program.  But that’s an entirely different story.

The Glass Menagerie

Milwaukee Repertory Theatre

November, 1998

Arthur Hanket

“Director Paul Barnes and the Rep’s fine cast have made shifts in the tone usually established for the piece and in Tom’s and Laura’s states of mind.  The heat has been turned up beneath the play; the three principal characters are more vivid, their feelings more explosive.

“Immediate anger has replaced the distant sadness we often find in productions of Menagerie.  The confrontations contain a physical dimension that takes Tom and his mother to the edge of violence.  

“Tom’s anger overshadows the bond of love and compassion he feels for his sister.  Laura is ultimately as vulnerable as ever, but Kirsten Potter gives her a sly feistiness that allows her to share a knowing smile with Tom and make an impudent face when her mother is railing against them.  All of this erases the sentimentality that frequently colors the play.

“It’s a different Glass Menagerie but no less engaging, and it is fun to consider how these adjustments away from the conventional affect each character and the overall piece.”

     Damien Jacques

     Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

“. . . the first sounds you hear during Paul Barnes’s new production at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater are the rhythms of street life and ‘hot swing.’ And as Tom (Arthur Hanket) begins his famous introduction to the play, those restless rhythms continue in the language.  Hardly the brooding and closed-in Tom that we have come to expect, Hanket seems to lilt and sway with every phrase, dancing to his own words with a mocking self-consciousness.  Barnes has crafted a production that moves like an Ellington blues instead of a music-box waltz.

“It’s a gutsy and welcome move, grabbing hold of an American classic rather than treating it as a precious and fragile thing.  What Barnes finds is the humor and energy in Williams’ dialog, the jazzy cadences and the surreal comedy that often masks the unbearable circumstances of the Wingfield family, and the furniture-shaking anger that occasionally, inevitably erupts.  Given Rose Pickering’s comic talents and larger-than-life presence, Barnes lets her create a broadly absurd Amanda, and brings the rest of the play to her rather than trying to tone down her comic instincts.  It makes for a surprisingly funny Menagerie.

“There’s even a pliable resilience in Laura (Kirsten Potter), the most breakable of all Williams’ characters.  Potter lets Laura’s fragility register in bursts of frantic retreat, as when she scrambles to the corner of the apartment to furiously crank up the Victrola to play her lost father’s records.  And when Laura finally sits down with her gentleman caller (Brian Vaughn) free from the noise and emotional fury of a usual night at home, the play sinks into a beautiful, candlelit whisper.  Vaughn brings a certain naïve smugness to his character, but it’s the gentleness of the scene that stands out.  With the noise and baggage of family life all but forgotten, Barnes, it appears, saves Laura’s music for the very last dance, when one can really hear its delicate poignancy.”

     Paul Kosidowski

     Milwaukee Metro

“When you experience Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie at the Milwaukee Rep, you’ll realize why he deserves honor as a great playwright.  The production, exceptionally well-conceived and directed by Paul Barnes, comes alive with timeless depth and beauty.  Every performance breathes with naturalness and understanding.

“Williams’ almost-autobiographical play shimmers with rich language and subtle symbolism, which Barnes never forces.  He and the actors have developed the characters with perfect dynamics and pacing, with the passion, humor and sweetness that Williams put into them.

“Director Barnes and Brian Vaughn have come up with a brilliantly fresh version of Jim, making him sensitive and warm, a thoroughly realized and justified discovery.  Indeed, Barnes found ways to elicit all kinds of wonderful possibilities.

“Joe Varga created a practical yet poetic set, worthy of Williams’ masterpiece, as is everything about this version. If Williams were here to see it, he would beam with admiration.  And how could we not agree?  With this production he is still very alive.”

     Gordon Spencer

     The Shepherd Express