There's no playwright, living or deceased, whose words I would rather listen to than Tennessee Williams. And if you don't already share that opinion, the first few minutes of the Green Room's The Glass Menagerie - with actor Eddie Staver III introducing us to Williams' "truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion" - might be enough to change your mind.
For those unfamiliar with the Green Room, it's a cozy venue housed on the site of Rock Island's former Brew & View, and while I wasn't able to catch August's Into the Woods premiere, it's obvious that the locale boasts numerous advantages as a stage space - the biggest being close proximity between actor and audience. Whenever you're in a venue where you could literally reach out and touch the performers standing in front of you (though that's rarely recommended), it's always difficult for an actor to get away with falseness. So when Staver's Tom Wingfield first steps out, wanders about the stage space, and, with a thoughtful, secure smile, tells us that he has tricks up his pocket and things up his sleeve, the Green Room's Glass Menagerie has a lot going for it right off the bat.
First of all, of course, it has Williams. His 1945 "memory play" about the Wingfield family - son Tom, daughter Laura (played here by Abby Van Gerpen), and mother Amanda (Jackie Madunic) - and Tom's aching desire to escape his family has been a theatrical staple for more than 60 years now, and for good reason: It's perfect. It's also, like Laura's decorative figurines of the title, very fragile, and requires a delicate touch for its tragicomic appeal not to be lost amidst undue reverence, melodrama, and/or sentiment.
Which brings us to second of all: It has Eddie Staver III. In his opening monologue, the actor delivers Williams' reveries with wonderful fluidity and naturalism, and makes an effortless connection with the audience; there's more than intent and confidence in his readings - there's truth. Clearly, Staver is unafraid of owning the stage, and as the play progresses, his generous performance gains in authority and depth. (He's also the most convincing on-stage drunk I've seen in some time.) It's a smart, impassioned portrayal, perfectly scaled for the size of the venue.
Which brings us to third of all: the staging. There was reason to assume the Green Room would be a good place to hear Williams' play, but it also turns out to be a good place to see it. Visually, the show is really quite something. With the rear staircase serving as the fire-escape entryway (the front staircase allows Tom entrance into his memory world), and the playing space suggesting the Wingfields' cramped apartment, the Green Room may almost have been built for The Glass Menagerie; even the brick wall and the curtains leading to off-stage rooms feel just right.
The show's director, Derek Bertelsen, takes maximum advantage of this. In the Wingfields' home, he shrewdly positions his actors for maximum claustrophobia and keeps them moving around like rats in a cage; you can sense why Tom would find the environment suffocating. Yet Bertelsen is also savvy enough to use the intimate playing area for, well, intimacy. The candlelit sequence of Laura and her Gentleman Caller (Bryan Tank) benefits hugely from being performed in such close quarters; it has a tender, romantic pull. (In addition to being a visual treat, this Glass Menagerie is a treat for the ears, as Tyson W. Danner has composed - and plays live - lovely, lightly melancholy background music.)
Van Gerpen and Tank play their big scene with incredible sweetness, even though, throughout the play, they don't really resemble The Glass Menagerie's Laura and the Gentleman Caller so much as Our Town's Emily and George. Van Gerpen doesn't seem debilitatingly shy so much as merely quiet - she exudes an abashed, yet perky, friendliness - and I'm a little puzzled about why Laura has been robbed of her limp; it makes no sense now when characters refer to her as "crippled." (At Sunday's matinée performance, she bounded up that fire escape with no problem.) As for Tank's sincere, eager-to-please suitor, he's missing the dazzling egocentrism inherent in Williams' dialogue; he seems legitimately embarrassed by his self-centeredness, which eradicates much of the character's humor.
Yet both actors have charm to spare, and Madunic's enjoyably girlish, theatrical tirades are matched by her moments of beguiling, frequently touching subtlety; all of Amanda's disappointments can be felt when Laura talks of the one man she may have truly loved and Madunic (with a spot-on Southern lilt) resignedly mutters, "Oh ... a high school boy ... ." For all of its small-scale appeal, the Green Room's Glass Menagerie - and, from the look of things, the Green Room itself - stands as a major accomplishment, and I'm already eager to see how the space transforms itself next.
For tickets, call (309) 786-5660.