May 13 2009 12:00 AM

Strong acting, set make memory play a memorable event


Entering the dark world of Tennessee Williams’ memory play “The Glass Menagerie” on the eve of
Mother’s Day weekend is an unnerving experience. Reluctant empathy balances against recollections of the hard-fought war for independence a creative son sometimes experiences, as he tries to escape the clutches of an overwrought, needy mother.

Central character and narrator Tom Wingfield steps out of the shrouded darkness of the stage to explain and justify his eventual abandonment of his aging, onceingénue mother, Amanda, and pathologically shy sister, Laura Wingfield.

Where our sympathies lie while watching this Southern drama depends on our point of view and experiences freeing ourselves from the insular world of our parents or letting go of our children, as they move out into the world.

While the casting of screen star Paula Prentiss as mother to her real-life son, Ross Benjamin, in the role of Tom, adds curiosity and, perhaps, promotional value to the mix, it is Prentiss’ performance that makes this production seem quite real. She brings a sweaty, strained intensity to her role, a brittle caricature of southern gentility, which is exactly what one would expect from a down-on-her-luck, once-upon-atime Southern Belle of the ball.

Thus, Prentiss evokes pathos, as Amanda tries so very hard to hold on to a worldview that includes long-gone visions of cotillions, plantations and servants, all the while trapped herself: a single mother living in a seedy apartment next to a nightclub.

Benjamin’s Tom comes across more venial and petty, overshadowing a moment of caring with an overall sense of “get-meout of here.” While we want to understand that this is a young man who is coming of age and must cut the  umbilical cord, Benjamin’s characterization is more evocative of adolescent insensitivity than a young adult recognizing a need to move on.

Where tenderness resides most in this production is in the Act 2 scene between Laura and gentleman caller Jim. As this scene unfolds, those who already know where it’s going still hope that this time it will somehow turn out different for Laura. There is the kiss followed by the silence, that truly awful moment of realization that this is not her shining knight sent to rescue her. It is truly painful to see this broken creature break down even more.

Daryl Thompson plays Jim with a gentleness of spirit that opens up the reclusive Laura, before he lets her down with the awkward admission that he is engaged to another woman. Charlyn Swarthout plays Laura as plain but sweet and tremulous with tics. It’s easy to imagine many in the audience wanting to step on stage and swoop her out of her hellacious existence.

Director John Neville-Andrews has flown in Tim Stapleton (a National Endowment of the Arts fellowship winner) from Portland, Ore., to work closely with lighting designer Michael Beyer and local glass artist Craig Mitchell Smith to form a stage splashed with rosy, lavender lighting that spills over the genteel-yet-shabby furnishings of the Wingfield apartment, spot-lighting the glass animal figurines of Laura’s collection. One is drawn, telescopically, into the intimacy of the action on stage.

A son can almost forgive an overreaching mother, if only he is able to step back from himself and into her shoes. No other Mother’s Day gift could be more fulfilling.

‘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)