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Classic 'Glass' explores frailties

Alexis Dow of Patriot-News

A family on the brink of shattering is at the center of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie," which opens tomorrow at Gamut Classic Theatre in Harrisburg.

Gamut Artistic Director J. Clark Nicholson, who directs "Glass Menagerie," calls this play "an American classic" that has endured the test of time. He has used only actors from the theater's core company, as is the norm for the company in winter.

"The winter show is a great time to see what can be done with a few people. It really allows us to examine our strengths and weaknesses," he explains.

And this challenging staple of modern American drama seemed the perfect choice. "It was the right play at the right time," Nicholson said.

Set in the late 1930s and detailed in flashback, the play follows the lives of shoe factory worker Tom Wingfield, who is torn between his role as family breadwinner and his desire to break free from his obligations; his overbearing mother, Amanda, once a grand Southern debutante, now trying to maintain her dignity amid the gloom of her St. Louis apartment; and Tom's frail sister, Laura, who has retreated to an imaginary world caring for her collection of glass animals. As tensions mount and tempers flare, the prospect of a husband for Laura becomes their final chance for stability and escape.

The presence of memory pervades the Gamut production and, according to Nicholson, is essential for capturing the essence of the production.

"We wanted to really play with the idea of memory and how memories shape and haunt us," Nicholson said. "This isn't a naturalistic play, and we didn't want to treat it like one. It is very aware of the theatrical conventions and that makes it what it is."

It is Tom's function in the play that exemplifies that idea. In the play's opening lines, he explains to the audience that what they are about to see is a "memory play," that the story is told from his memory, so he, in a way, controls the play's action.

He serves as a sort of theatrical maestro, an observer-participant in his own life story who, at times, stops the action to address the audience and interacts with the musician on stage.

Set designer Mark Robinson, who also plays Tom, conveys these ideas with a set that is not literal.

"The action of the play is coming from Tom's memory, and memories aren't perfect. Sometimes memory distorts the truth, and I wanted the set to reflect that," he said.

Robinson uses hazy-looking wall treatments, doorless doorframes and other structural oddities to communicate his vision.

Ambient music played onstage by violinist Melissa Dunphy also helps to create a dreamlike atmosphere.

Memory is a powerful theme not only for Tom, but for all the play's characters. It is a crippling force that prevents them from finding happiness in the present or in the potential of the future.

Amanda lives in constant pursuit of her bygone youth, using the memories of her past social glories as a form of escape, regaling her children with anecdotes of her past social glories.

Kate Magill, Amanda in Gamut's production, agrees that Amanda uses her colorful memories of the past as a life preserver of sorts.

"She clings to [her memories] and her children because that is all she really has. She lives vicariously through Tom and Laura because there is still hope for them. At one point she is talking to Tom, and she says that all she wishes for is success and happiness for her children. If they are successful, that means that she has not failed."

Laura, too, is haunted by her past. Years of being physically, emotionally and socially crippled have made her extremely fragile and vulnerable, driving her to a private world of isolation.

Amber E. Wagner, who plays Laura, believes that the most important people in Laura's life encouraged her fragility and, by doing so, stifled her emotional and social growth.

"For all of her life, people have been treating Laura like she was made of glass. I think that she just started to believe them, and that's why she is the way she is," Wagner said.

The solution to all the Wingfields' problems will be the much anticipated "gentleman caller," Jim O'Connor, a work acquaintance of Tom's whom he invites to dinner in an attempt to find a suitor for Laura. Gamut's Jim, associate artistic director Doug Durlacher, emphasizes Jim's good intentions.

"Jim is the anticipated solution to all of their problems. His presence represents everything that they want, and I think he senses that. He senses their desperation and becomes determined to help."

The frailty of the characters and their relationships is the axis around which the play spins, and these relationships create a poignant and expressive piece of theater that has endured for more than 50 years.

Nicholson emphasizes this, saying, "This play is about fragile creatures living in a little box, trying not to break each other."

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