The Glass Menagerie Is No Antique

In Tandem prepares to stage a fresh interpretation of the Tennessee Williams classic.

By - Sep 18th, 2014 11:18 am

You might think Chris Flieller was squirming in his seat during rehearsals for In Tandem’s “The Glass Menagerie,” which begins previews Sept. 25 and runs through Oct. 19 at his intimate 99-seat Tenth Street Theatre on the lower level of the “big red church” (Calvary) at 628 N. 10th St.

Usually Flieller or his partner and wife, Jane, quarter century veterans of the Milwaukee theater scene, are in the director’s chair since they run In Tandem. But here he is, the observing producer. The actual director is another veteran theater name, Mary MacDonald Kerr, who in October gets to reprise her comedy chops as an actress in the farcical “Shear Madness.”

Angela Iannone. Photo courtesy of In Tandem Theatre.

Angela Iannone. Photo courtesy of In Tandem Theatre.

All this for a play featuring someone who went out of her way to work for the Fliellers — longtime acquaintance and major draw for theater fans Angela Iannone, as Amanda. Chris also selected the ensemble for probably the most legendary drama from Tennessee Williams.

But rather than twitching in anxiety, Chris Flieller was twisting with enthusiasm to get back to rehearsals during our interview, which took place downtown off Water St. He is delighted to continue his passion – “a theater company that gives talented people a chance to spread their wings.” And not just the director or Iannone, who played Katherine Hepburn in a one-woman play for In Tandem. He has regularly sought opportunities for veterans and newcomers – and titles more often unknown to the public than taught in classrooms, which can’t be said about “The Glass Menagerie.”

Jokingly, Flieller lists the horrible reasons actors use to start a theater company – a self-centered showcase, a money move, an ego-booster, a vanity outing – and he is grateful he and Jane were not motivated by any of those. Anyone who is a regular theatergoer knows that. Anyone who checked his bank book could confirm it.

In Tandem is a shoestring operation, inside a church, yet! And because of that it is often neglected in media coverage. Chris can often be found operating the concession table at the spacious In Tandem lobby (and only regular patrons know who is serving them drinks). He is a cheerleader for the UWM music students who play show tunes on the piano before and at intermission, encouraging their source of income – tips. He and Jane, who often handles the tickets, have established such sturdy relationships and reputations that regulars from the Rep, the Chamber Theater, Next Act and other companies as well as climbing hopefuls are willing presences on the always professionally outfitted stage.

The Chris-Jane PR side recognizes that Iannone, because of her talent, has become a powerful draw in Milwaukee, so they are featuring her in the ads. But Chris Flieller’s theater side waxed eloquently in the interview about the intricacies and ever-growing exploration that “The Glass Menagerie” demands 70 years after its unveiling. And how the play is almost the definition of “ensemble.”

It’s been an injustice, he points out, to identify the drama so heavily with the mother Amanda as some sort of tour-de-force vehicle. Certainly the part is memorable, often described as a Southern harridan imposing her will on crippled daughter Laura and on frustrated son Tom – with the intrusion of the Gentleman Caller mixing up expectations. That view has lingered not just because of Williams’ profound talent in portraying Amanda, but because of theatrical history. A rejected alcoholic has-been, Laurette Taylor, floored critics with her own emergence in the role in the 1940s. Actors such as Maureen Stapleton, Jessica Tandy, Jessica Lange and more recently Cherry Jones have taken the role to acclaim or debate. Community theaters have flown to it to enhance their local reputations, not to mention its small cast.

But this is more than Amanda’s show. It is a challenging dramatic collision. “Sure it would draw crowds to cast some 80 year old great acting name as Amanda and a 40 year old movie star as Tom,” chuckled Flieller. “But the play is about a mother hanging on to two young adults and it requires actors who reflect that reality. The young actors we have (Grace DeWolff as Laura, John Glowacki as Tom and Rick Pendzich as Jim, the gentleman caller) not only fit the drama, they don’t seem intimidated at all, just eager to become. That’s what makes the rehearsal process so compelling.”

The Glass Menagerie

The Glass Menagerie

Scholars have noted that Amanda is the once elegant Southern belle forced into poorer circumstances (foreshadowing “A Streetcar Named Desire”), that Tom may be Williams’ self-vision of how a clinging family blocked his artistic gifts. Laura (the young Piper Laurie said it was her most demanding Broadway role) has been played as everything from repressed virgin to emotional nitwit to autistic precursor, so haunting are the incidents. The Gentleman Caller, set in a time when salesmanship ruled America, is seen by some as the young Willy Loman (a reference to Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” another play locked in its time but replete with theatrical insight into the power of memory).

Flieller is openly irritated by “those who dismiss the play as some antique, fully explored chestnut.”

“No play is perfect,” he points out, but every rehearsal exposes new facets, new possibilities within the lines, new chances to “spread the wings.”

Flieller has been engaged in all the wing-spreading aspects of Milwaukee theater since he was an acting student at UWM 30 years ago, one of a handful of the graduates of that professional training program who remained in Milwaukee. He was a frequent presence at the Skylight, Theatre X, Chamber Theater and other Milwaukee companies, where he established many of the relationships he has brought to the concept of In Tandem. “We pay what we can,” he notes, “but it is still about what we put on.”

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You can find his blog here.

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