Friday, February 6, 2015

Menagerie's Delicate Power, and a Giving of Trees

By K Michael Moore
Photos by Len Struttmann

L-R: Spina, Schneider, Rezabek, Shedeck
Marion - The Glass Menagerie is often regarded as Tennessee Williams’s masterwork, filled with depth and broken, redeemable, challenging characters. In brief (as brief as possible!), the 1930’s: the Wingfield family, long abandoned but haunted by the unnamed Mr. Wingfield, struggles along on the income of an unsettled and dreaming Tom (David Schneider), who is also the Narrator of the piece. His older sister, Laura (Hannah Spina), destructively shy and with a crippled leg, has no prospects to make her own way in the world, little to no ambition past her record player and her glass figurines, and no likelihood to obtain a husband to provide for her. Their mother, Amanda (Traci Rezabek), is an aging southern belle who married the wrong man and lives largely in her own memory and her own vision of her children. Tom dreams of escaping the prison of the family flat, of adventure, but remains to keep his mother and sister from being destitute. Laura dreams of her glass figurines, of a boy she adored in high school. Amanda dreams of what she once was – or thought she was – and that her children would aspire to marriage and happiness, but she fails to understand what would make them happy. Needless to say, such a mix in a tiny St. Louis apartment leads to strife. Enter Tom’s friend, “The Gentleman Caller,” Jim O’Connor, played by Kyle Shedek, invited to dinner by Tom but at Amanda’s insistence in an effort to marry Laura off. Jim has no idea of Amanda’s intentions and doesn’t even know Tom has a sister.

Giving Tree’s inaugural production of Menagerie is a solid show, and shows the promise of future endeavors. It is not without its flaws, but it is a wonderful show. One of the show’s greatest accomplishments is that not one of the characters is flat or one-dimensional. As Director Heather Akers points out in her Director’s Note, it is all too easy with a script such as this to paint the characters too thin. Tom can easily become a selfish, alcoholic bum with no respect; Laura a willingly invalid spinster, afraid to face the world; and Amanda a manipulative harpy with a dash of insanity. At no time does the Giving Tree troupe allow this to happen. And that’s the true power of the production – Giving Tree shows us these infinitely human characters without either apology or excuse, but with simple understanding.

Another truly winning element is the familial connection displayed. Despite the differences and flaws of the characters, the actors works in tandem to give us beautiful moments with one another – the kind of loving connections that family, no matter how fractious, is periodically lucky enough to find and embrace. It can be difficult onstage to find such moments, especially in a script filled with arguments and family struggle. Each of the actors brings this connection to life in their turn, and they share these moments with each other with an ease and grace that makes them all the more real.

Schneider’s Tom is kind. He easily pulls us in with Williams’ opening narration, leaving us wondering how he will show us this wistful memory play he promises. He is open, honest, fresh, and full of dreams, even as he speaks of the difficult life he is about to display. Throughout the performance, Schneider gives us an intellectual poet, stuck in his circumstances. The scene in which he reconciles with Amanda over coffee is a testament to the connection and genuine affection in these characters, who love but cannot abide. What comes across as missing is the fire he describes burning inside himself – that fuming and frustration is not seen often enough. This Tom is not ready to, as he puts it, have his brains bashed in with a crowbar, just to stop the monotony and sense of loss.

Where he lacks that outward burn of frustration, however, Schneider accommodates with a very subtle and powerful sarcasm – especially with Amanda. This doesn’t come through immediately. It’s ever-present, but not easily grasped in the first few scenes. It builds in the audience’s awareness slowly, and becomes more effective as the play unfolds. His scene with Amanda at the typewriter reveals that Schneider’s Tom does indeed have a “burn” inside him, but it isn’t a flamethrower; it rather smokes out of him in a quiet and ever present sense of insult - a derision which cannot be escaped from a child who has learned that it’s “just not worth it” to confront the parent. This is a masterful subtlety.

Schneider’s final monologue is a heartbreak in words: as his opening draws us in, his closing breaks our hearts. His delivery closes the show in emotional captivity, revealing the travesty of the character, who finally moves to create his own world only to be haunted by the one he left. Overall, Schneider leaves us a tortured Tom who desperately loves his family while also loving his own dreams. He cannot have both, and cannot live without either. The frankness of his final monologue is his most touching moment, as it should be—Tom walking the earth with his shadows around him, inescapable and ever present.

Spina presents a complex Laura, and thankfully spares us the shallow, painted-on victim. This is a great blessing. She has a real talent for demonstrating a character without words. Laura doesn’t speak much, and when she does she is usually echoing someone else, or complying with another character’s request or demand. Entire scenes go on while Laura is onstage but in another room. It is a real challenge for an actor to relay a character’s true emotion in this type of exchange. Spina is a local master of conveying such non-verbal emotion.

Laura is complicated. She’s simultaneously a willing victim and a prisoner – both of her own fear and of her circumstance. Spina flows free in the moments when other characters are speaking, ever-present and true to form without being distracting. Laura’s fear, paralyzing as it is, surrounds her, and her discomfort is palpable. Spina emanates this constant discomfort through every physical, facial, and vocal expression. Though the play ends with Tom’s monologue, it is Laura we are watching as the lights go down.

Hannah Spina as Laura, Kyle Shedeck as Jim
Jim O’Connor only appears in the second half of the play. The innocent pawn of Amanda and Tom’s plan, Jim is not the wistful dreamer that Tom is, but rather a driven man trying to build up his own dream. Shedeck portrays Jim in a spunky, hopeful, and kindly light. He holds his own secrets, but he is the rock of stability in the script. He is what Amanda wishes her children were, what she in fact kept them from being. Shedeck brings that stability to life with verve.

Shedeck’s energetic and realistic Jim is a wonderful counterpoint to the stagnant, fearful traps of the Wingfield family. He presents the mirror that Tom, and especially Laura, finally glimpse themselves through. He sees all the family as they are and tries to... not lift them, but rather show them a path to higher ground. Shedeck’s Jim is likable, dedicated, and honest. He is not the largest role in the show, but he is the game-changer in the story - and Shedek proves he is up to the task. He brings an energy to the character that never lags, and in his scene with Spina they are both in turns intense and spunky, confused and driven, but always true to form.

I intentionally leave for last the matriarch of the family, Amanda, played by Traci Rezabek. Amanda is, in some ways, the most stereotypical character in the play... or, more accurately, she could be. The fallen Southern Belle, down on her luck, abandoned by her husband and dreaming of her days of glory, she could be painted as a weakened Scarlett O’Hara wannabe. Rezabek avoids this trip entirely, making Amanda her own, and shows us in her long, winding monologues that Amanda’s lost days of glory were, perhaps, not so glorious. Despite her claims that she was drowned in gentleman callers and simply was suckered into a poor choice, Rezabek—particularly with her “jonquils” monologue—neatly slides in the picture that, just perhaps, young Amanda may have been as difficult to live with as her elder self... that this character was always a bit less than she aspired to and dreamed of being.

Rezabek’s floating movement and lilting voice balance the easy southern stereotype with a deeply flawed but well-meaning “helicopter mom.” She loves her children deeply. She wants them to succeed and be happy. She is tender and supportive, but only in her own way. She has her own definition of what happy means and how it must be done, and she does not react well when that vision is blurred. Rezabek shows an understanding of the underlying and much damaged psychology of Amanda’s character, but also her deep and abiding love and mission. It’s Rezabek’s tenderness with Williams’ language that initiates some of the most touching moments of the show. In addition, her ability to make us laugh with simplicity and subtlety helps to humanize Amanda’s less admirable traits, and softens her rough edges. She is tediously nagging and interfering, comical in just the right way, and ultimately aiming only for a brighter future, even if in flawed and sometimes self-serving ways.

If there is a weak spot to Rezabek’s Amanda, it is that she is, perhaps, not quite biting enough. Her tenderness shows through wonderfully, and her love of her children shines. But there are moments when Amanda’s dark side could be darker, if only in the very brief lines when her “belle” fa├žade falters and the beast slips out.

Those of you who have lived in or close to a family in which one member has a disability – be it physical, mental, emotional; addiction, psychology, what have you – you may recognize the strange but natural way in which that person becomes the central theme in the family’s doings. It may not be obvious, but it is ever-present. On some level and in some way, the disability can become a silent family member, quietly dictating people’s actions through guilt, obligation, genuine love and affection, pity, duty, or any number of motives. No matter the import of protecting that member, the importance of loving their limits and the truth of who they are, we cannot ignore the weight that is carried by the rest.

One of the great elements of this production is the manner in which all of the actors enact this silent partner, typically without acknowledging it. Part of this is the skill of one Tennessee Williams, but the living and breathing power here is the way in which Spina conveys being the source of it, with awareness and sensitivity, how Schneider, Rezabek, and Shedek simply and unobtrusively purvey it. How Heather Akers guides it. I can say, I have personally lived in this world, and I have a knee-jerk and very negative reaction when it is depicted falsely on stage or in film. This production, this cast, gives such a real and difficult emotional situation a sensitivity and power I admire a great deal.

There is no live production that exists without some flaw (thank the Maker! That’s why we do live theater!). Giving Tree’s Glass Menagerie is no exception. What it is, however, is a touching, thoughtful, devotional rendition of a true American classic, lovingly brought to the stage by dedicated and talented artists, at a new and exciting venue – The Giving Tree Theater. This is a show that should be seen, and talked about, felt, and shared. It is a beautiful start to what will hopefully be a long line of successes for the Akers family and the Giving Tree Theater.

The Glass Menagerie runs January 30 through February 15 in Marion. I encourage you to get tickets and details by visiting Also, please explore the company’s dedication to public giving and future shows. I can’t lie: I am proud of my friends, onstage and off, and wish to support their endeavor.

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