If fellow Reader reviewer Alex Richardson can publicly declare his distaste for Rodgers and Hammerstein, I feel safe sharing my own opinion that Tennessee Williams and The Glass Menagerie are overrated.
However, I was curious to see this Richardson-directed production for two reasons: (1) I’ve never been on the Black Hawk College campus before, and (2) I was genuinely distraught when the Mockingbird on Main space became no more: I may not have always loved every show they did, but appreciate what the venue brought to the QC theatre scene. And this production was obviously a true labor of love for Tristan Tapscott, as he’s the co-owner of the Mockingbird. He was also the person to greet me at the door on Saturday evening. He also shared scenic- and lighting-design responsibility. Oh, he also acts in the production in the role of Tom.
The Glass Menagerie is Tennessee Williams’ somewhat autobiographical piece, having based the Tom Wingfield role on his own life experience. The entirety of the play is described as a memory, and while what occurs here may not be precisely what happened, it is how Tom recalls it. Tom shares a St. Louis apartment with his mother Amanda (a perfectly cast Jackie McCall) and his older sister Laura (Jo E. Vasquez), whose mental- and physical-health concerns hinder her ability to function in the world. The family struggles to stay financially afloat after being abandoned by their husband/father, prompting Amanda’s obsession with finding a “gentlemen caller” for Laura to marry. Tom consequently invites his coworker Jim (yet another Reader reviewer – Roger Pavey Jr.) to dinner.
From the moment I entered the Black Hawk theatre, I was struck by the look of the onstage apartment, the lights especially packing a big punch. I particularly loved the use of blues that Tapscott and co-designer Pavey chose, perhaps as a throwback to the Mockingbird’s original space with its blue curtains and paint. The lights were stellar throughout the evening, making the whole stage feel like a foggy memory. I appreciated the slivers of light cast upon the stage, and how Richardson set up stage pictures to utilize the light to its fullest extent without just making the whole thing brighter. In my opinion, the darkness of the theatre allowed the dark feelings of the Wingfield family to fully permeate into the hearts of the audience.
Meanwhile, what I was definitely not expecting from this production was for it to blow my mind with a new realization. Where I'd previously villainized Tom for his selfishness, I had never before considered Laura a potential villain. And yet Richardson and Vasquez gave me that opportunity: Why does everyone in this family just give Laura a completely free pass? Yes, she suffered from pleurisy. But on Saturday night, at least, Vasquez had no visible limp, and Laura clearly has the wherewithal to cover up the fact she quit her secretary school job.
Vasquez’s take on the character never presented Laura as someone to feel sorry for. Even when struggling with anxious feelings, it felt as though Laura was exaggerating to get her way rather than struggling with a crippling mental block. I also found it odd that Laura spent so little time with her miniature glass animals, given they’re the show’s titular characters. If they’re truly her safe space, and how she calms herself down, why then spend so much time on the couch?
Is it any wonder Amanda ran out of patience with her daughter? Admittedly, she isn’t thrilled with her life, the former Southern Belle that she is. Reminiscing about the good ol' days with her plentiful gentlemen callers, McCall wistfully stares at the portrait of her husband often, and her performance was stunning: McCall's Southern accent was spot-on, and her lines flowed like liquid from a stream; it was almost hypnotic. When paired with composer Micah Bernas’ music, Richardson's whole production felt more like a dream than a memory.
Amanda’s been through the wringer, and considering her circumstances, her grasping at straws to marry Laura off may be self-serving. But McCall made me root for Amanda to finally get a win again. In Act II, when Amanda shows off her old belle dress (which was the highlight of costumer Bradley Robert Jensen’s overall well-executed designs), my heart went out to her even more. Is she desperate? Yes. But so is her situation, as the Winfields can’t even afford to keep the lights on.
Tapscott’s portrayal of Tom is also fantastic. The character just wants to write, and his distaste for the life he’s living is complicated because he so clearly loves his family; they are the entire reason he stays in St. Louis. Tapscott’s Tom carries the weight of responsibility well, and even when he does just as he’s asked, by bringing Jim home for dinner, he’s blamed when the whole thing backfires. (Let’s not blame it on Laura, of course; she’s shy.) Pavey is an exceedingly earnest Jim. Though Jim, bless his heart, is also discontented with life since he peaked in high school, his burdens are light compared to the Wingfields', and Pavey brought a jovial quality to the stage I rather enjoyed. It certainly isn’t Jim’s fault that he saw right through the trap and quickly removed himself.
Richardson’s production way affected ever-so-slightly at the very end, because although the audience had to know it was over, there was a hesitancy to clap even though the cast was back on stage and there was a significant lighting shift. (Perhaps curtain-call music would help?) While my opinion of The Glass Menagerie itself hasn’t changed, I certainly appreciated the chance to reallocate the antagonism to Laura thanks to Richardson’s production – and that was more than worthy of a solid round of applause.
The Mockingbird on Main's The Glass Menagerie runs at the Black Hawk College theatre (6600 34th Avenue, Building 1, Room 308, Moline IL) through July 15, and more information and tickets are available by visiting TheMockingbirdOnMain.com.