May 15 2009 12:00 AM

Prentiss, son star as Glass Menagerie mother, son


As Amanda Wingfield launched into a dinner-table tangent on the importance of chewing and savoring one’s food last Thursday morning, Karen Doyle couldn’t help laughing out loud. The BoarsHead Theater stage manager wasn’t being rude. It was funny. Stage and screen actress Paula Prentiss was dead on as Wingfield, effortlessly flexing a lazy Southern drawl and passive dominance on her helpless adult children — played by Prentiss’ real son, Ross Benjamin, and Charlyn Swarthout — as they shot loaded looks at their plates and each other.

The fact that Doyle, of all people, who had probably seen the actors run through this scene countless times already, couldn’t contain herself during this rehearsal only seemed to highlight what Prentiss, Benjamin and director John Neville-Andrews had been saying all morning about their upcoming production of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie”— that for all of the melodrama and tension and heartbreak of this 20th century classic, there’s also plenty to laugh at.

“I think people don’t realize there’s a lot of humor in this play,” Neville-Andrews said. “It’s funny one minute, then it’s touching, mystic, lyrical. It’s a real kaleidoscope of emotions and psychological battles.”

The show, which opens tonight at BoarsHead, tells the story of central character and narrator Tom Wingfield, as he remembers the events that led to his abandoning his mother, Amanda, and sister, Laura, nearly 20 years before.

Through the lens of Tom’s memory, the audience meets his overbearing mother, who refuses to give up her long-gone glory days as a southern belle, and his shy sister, who spends her time looking at her collection of glass animals and listening to old records. The three live together in an apartment in St. Louis. As Amanda pushes the aspiring writer Tom and Laura to think about their, and her, futures, heads butt and emotions flare.

“It really runs the gamut and quite sharply,” Benjamin said. “It turns on a dime, because there really is a truth beneath all of it.”

Watching any family go through its ups and downs is something Prentiss called “universal,” and at times amusing, even if a story isn’t asking for laughs. “The funniest comedy is in the truth,” she said.

Prentiss, 71, made a name for herself in the 1960s and ‘70s starring in such films as “Where the Boys Are,” “Catch-22” and “The Stepford Wives.” Lansing theatergoers saw her at BoarsHead last year as the lead in George Bernard Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” in which she starred alongside her daugh ter, Prentiss Benjamin. Now she’s playing a mother to her own son. The two have also worked together in productions of “Majority of One” and “All My Sons.” But Prentiss said, “This is the piece de resistance.”

“You can’t even describe what it’s like talking to your son, and he is your son in the play,” Prentiss said. “It eliminates something … I can’t say what.”

Benjamin , 35, whose father is movie star Richard Benjamin (Prentiss’ husband for 47 years), said playing opposite his mother means not having to manufacture a sense of familiarity between characters, even if what they’re saying and doing is fiction. “It brings a layer of real relationship,” he said.

When they haven’t been rehearsing in the last few weeks, Prentiss and Benjamin take walks around town, hit up the laundry mat or take in a movie; they recently saw “Earth” and “Fast & Furious,” a chance, as Benjamin put it, to “just look at stuff and have a good time” after the emotional workout of “The Glass Menagerie."

Before they leave, they would like to take the Riverwalk to Potter Park Zoo and maybe take in a Lugnuts game. Prentiss was also interested in taking up a restaurant recommendation for the Soup Spoon Caf.

Although it can create some confusion between scenes, for instance, when Benjamin refers to “mother,” Neville- Andrews said working with mother and son has been a pleasure. “It’s just like working with two really good actors, but they happen to be related,” Neville-Andrews said.

As for the rest of the cast, Neville- Andrews said Swarthout “comes across as so heartbreaking,” as Laura, and called Daryl Thompson, who plays Jim, Tom’s friend from work and a potential suitor for Laura, the “perfect gentleman caller.”

The British born Neville-Andrews, who is also the artistic producer of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival, called it a privilege to direct an American classic like “The Glass Menagerie.” Although he’s lived stateside for 30 plus years, he still put in the call for help when it came to decoding Williams subtle southern-isms. “I’m married to a woman from the South,” Neville- Andrews said. “When reading it, I’d ask, ‘What does this mean?’”

A play heavy on symbolism and emotion, Neville-Andrews said the trick is not letting the show become too indulgent.
Working in Shakespeare, the director is no stranger to the age-old blessing/curse of performing well-known and loved material. “I wouldn’t want people to go, ‘Oh, no, not another ‘Glass Menagerie,’” he said. “I’d like to see them laugh a lot, and then cry, too.

‘The Glass Menagerie’

May 31 7 p.m. Wednesday & Thursday 8 p.m. Friday & Saturday 2
p.m. Sunday BoarsHead Theater, 425 S. Grand Ave., Lansing $12-$30 (517)
484-7805 www.boarshead.org