Like the sparkling cut-glass figurines that provide the title for this poignant Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece, The Glass Menagerie is a beautiful but fragile creation. The current Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy presentation, staged with considerable wit and admirable verve by Burning Coal Theatre Company artistic director Jerome Davis, employs rear-screen projections, doctored photographs, snippets of music and sound effects, and the Alienation Effect (a la Bertolt Brecht) with actors doubling as stagehands and one even taking a seat in the audience for one scene.
Davis mainly does all these things to emphasize the humor in this magnificent and ultimately tragic Memory Play. But this fresh, new multimedia directorial approach to The Glass Menagerie pays mixed dividends. It enhances some scenes, and proves distracting in others.
Legendary New York Times sports writer Red Smith once said, “Writing is easy. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” While writing The Glass Menagerie, Thomas Lanier Williams — called “Tom” by family and friends — must have found it excruciatingly painful to relive his guilt over acquiescing to the lobotomy of the obvious inspiration for the character Laura Wingfield: his own emotionally volatile and sexually promiscuous sister Rose, whose post-lobotomy life was no life at all.
Laura Wingfield, played for Hot Summer Nights with great feeling by Raleigh actress Emily Ranii, is a rare creature, as delicate in body and spirit as the unicorn that is Laura’s favorite among the many wondrous creatures in her miniature menagerie. But there is nothing small and delicate about Ranii, who is a large, healthy young lady. Moreover, Ranii eschews Laura’s residual limp from the malady that made her a “cripple” in high school. Thus, her Laura seems more of an emotional cripple than a tender spirit painfully self-conscious about her each and every real or imagined physical and emotional imperfection.
Ever-reliable Raleigh actor David Henderson, who appears Zelig-like in many of the production’s doctored photographs, adds to his laurels as one of the Triangle’s finest character actors with a warm and winning performance as jocular Jim O’Connor, dubbed Most Likely to Succeed in high school, but six years later still slaving away in a shoe warehouse, albeit in a higher-level menial job than his high school friend Tom Wingfield (New York City actor Tom Martin), the increasingly restless and unhappy breadwinner of the Wingfield household.
When Tom casually recruits Jim to play the role of the long-awaited Gentleman Caller whom his desperate mother Amanda (Abingdon, VA actress Quinn Hawkesworth) is counting on to woo and marry Laura, Tom doesn’t remember that in high school, Laura had a huge crush on Jim, who recently (and unknown to Tom) became engaged to another woman. Thus, the wheels are set in motion for the Big Letdown, and the Big Blowup that will break up the not-so-happy Wingfield family for all time.
Tom Martin gives a heart-felt performance as the deeply regretful Tom Wingfield, but it is marred (in my mind at least) by one of those ersatz Southern accents that may pass for authentic in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, but sound forced and phony down here. Quinn Hawkesworth, who gives an absolutely luminous performance as Amanda Wingfield, who is (for my money) the beleaguered but annoying heroine of this piece, also lays on the moonlight-and-magnolias accent a bit too heavily. But at least her accent is as authentic as the nervous gestures with which she expresses Amanda’s angst.
The problem is, the three Wingfields — all transplanted Mississippians living in genteel poverty in St. Louis, circa 1938, have three dramatically different Southern accents, with mother sounding like the former well-to-do but flighty Southern belle that Amanda surely was, sister Laura soft-spoken and almost accentless, and younger brother Tom broadly mimicking the exaggerated accents of the faux Southerners of stage, screen, and television.
(Personal Note: Ersatz Southern accents may not bother you at all, but they have a fingernails-on-the-blackboard effect on this reviewer. So do ersatz British accents. When they vary from cockney to posh uppercrust within the same family, it adds a jarring false note to an otherwise compelling production.)
Having said all this quite reluctantly, I can still recommend The Glass Menagerie for its incendiary acting and imaginative staging. Moreover, set and lighting designer Curtis Jones and costume designer Vanessa Streeter deserve special commendations for their yeoman-like work in adding an air of authenticity to the proceedings and facilitate its cinematic scene changes.
Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy presents The Glass Menagerie Wednesday-Saturday, June 14-June 17 and 21-24, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, June 18 and 25, at 3 p.m. in the Kennedy Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $25 per show, with senior and group discounts available. Progress Energy Box Office: 919/831-6060. Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy: http://www.hotsummernightsatthekennedy.org/. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=3932. Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042509/., http://www.ibdb.com/person.asp?ID=8822 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0931783/ (Internet Movie Database).