The Glass Menagerie

By - Mar 14th, 2007 02:52 pm
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By Jill Gilmer

glassmenagerie

It’s beginning to show its age… or is it? When Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie was first produced in 1945, it drew praise from audiences and critics for its portrayal of a man’s struggle to balance his family responsibilities with his longing for inner fulfillment. This theme, which had broad relevance in the post-depression era, seems quaintly outdated in 2007. However, The Milwaukee Repertory Theatre breathed new life into this American classic by bringing it to the stage with a talented African-American cast and director, creating a provocative theatre experience that challenges racial stereotypes.

The Glass Menagerie gives us a peek into the world of the Wingfield family. At its head is Amanda Wingfield, an aging and irritating Southern belle played magnificently by Brenda Thomas. Amanda is struggling to hold on to the privileged lifestyle with which she grew up. Her goal is complicated by her charismatic husband’s decision to walk out on her and her two children many years earlier to pursue his dreams. Amanda is left with the daunting task of maintaining a household with her two adult children: Laura, a shy and crippled 24 year old at risk of becoming an “old maid,” and Tom, a restless 22 year old trying to live up to his mother’s expectations to support the family on a factory worker’s salary while yearning for real-life adventures on par with the movies he adores. This tension-filled family unit begins to unravel when Tom invites Jim Connor, a charming and ambitious co-worker, to dinner with the covert objective of marrying off his sister.

What would happen if this all-American story were depicted by African-Americans? Would this classic play transcend race, or would race transform the story? These were some of the questions that motivated director Jacqueline Moscou, who also directed an African-American cast in Death of a Salesman. I believe the answer is both. The human experiences of love, guilt and desire for social status and self-actualization are not bound by race. A blind theatergoer may be unable to detect that the characters are black.

However, a sighted audience brings a range of expectations about class and race that this production may confront and challenge. Were there really wealthy black families whose daughters aspired to marry plantation owners? (Yes.) Are there black men who anticipate technological revolution (i.e. the coming of television) and have the discipline and focus to position themselves to take advantage of it? (Yes.) Are black men who abandon their families to follow their dreams any worse than affluent white men who do the same?

Ms. Moscou’s Glass Menagerie depicts a world with which few Americans, black or white, are familiar. The story of wealthy African-Americans, many of whom have hired help (and for some, back in the day, slaves), is rarely depicted in the mass media. The references to Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., the 100-year-old college sorority for black women, may have escaped many in the audience. This production could be praised as refreshing and ground-breaking solely for giving a voice to this neglected group.

But its greatness is less in the novelty of the cast than in the strength of this ensemble. Lanise Antoine Shelly brings a perfectly nuanced humility to Laura. Wayne Carr lights up the second act with his optimistic Jim, the perfect counter-balance to the sarcastic and brooding Tom, played by Timothy McCuen Piggee. The two male characters are a refreshing change from the caricatures of African-American men as athletes, entertainers and thugs that dominate pop culture.

Each of the actors brings humanity to their role that fosters empathy for these highly-relatable characters. It also gives this usually melancholy story an underlying hopeful quality. The strength of these performances shifts the play’s focus from its storyline to its universal characters, allowing this Glass Menagerie to find its way to a new relevance for this century. VS

The Glass Menagerie runs through April 1 at The Rep’s Steimke Theatre. For tickets and information, call 414-224-9490 or visit milwaukeerep.com.

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