Of unicorns and gentlemen callers

Amy Danielson

 

I am grateful not to have my mother in search of my future husband. I cannot even image who she would bring homeñprobably some poor sap in a Mr. Roger’s cardiganñbut no doubt someone more suitable to her tastes than my own. But then, straights aren’t as dire for me as they are for Laura Wingfield, the shy, sickly daughter in Tennessee William’s oft-produced The Glass Menagerie, currently playing at the Rarig Center. Set in a tiny St. Louis apartment, just prior to the outbreak of World War II, Menagerie takes place at a time when opportunities for women like Laura were unhappily limited.

Amanda Wingfield (Barbara Reid) desperately wants to find a gentleman caller for Laura (Kerry Ruane) who recently dropped out of business schoolñleaving no herself no future prospects and barely able to care for herself. Laura is an attractive girl, but she has characteristics that keep her from finding a man: She suffers from a humiliating case of pleurosis and a fear of human contact. Ruane keeps her head down during most of the first act of this production, giving us little sense of Laura but that she is a shy girl, but her performance takes off in the second act and she successfully displays the full range of the character’s personality.

When Laura’s grumpy brother Tom (Scott Reynolds) brings home rather ordinary young friend, Jim O’Connor (Justin Zavadil), Laura’s mother forces the young man upon her hesitating daughter. “Your brother tells me you’re shy, is that right, Laura?” Jim asks, but it is an obvious question, as Laura can’t even look him in the eye. Jim blithely diagnoses her as having an inferiority complex, but eases her discomfort with his easy-going natureñZavadil portrays Jim as sweet, gentle, sensitive, yet slightly naïve.

Laura withdraws from Jim as they sit across from each other on the floor, inching only slightly toward the young man in response to Jim’s incessant pleas for her to come closer to him. Eventually, with Jim’s gentle prodding, she feels comfortable enough to permit him to hold her favorite glass figurineña unicorn. “Unicorns. Aren’t they extinct in the modern world?” Jim asks, thoughtlessly.

This prospective gentleman caller is, to Amanda’s delight, “Irish on both sides and doesn’t drink!” Reid plays Amanda as persuasively severe, glaringly honest and vulnerable, cajoling her daughter with a desperation bred by limited circumstances. “To be painfully honest, your chest is flat,” Amanda barks, stuffing her daughter’s bra in preparation for Jim’s arrival.

Reynolds ties the characters together in his role as Tom. He effectively moves from a capricious narrator to a furious son over the course of the play. His anger surpasses any empathy he might feel for his sister. In response, Ruane gives Laura a slight sense of impertinence that permits her to shoot an understanding smirk at Tom when their mother scoffs at them, effectively expunging the mawkishness that otherwise appears in the play.

Williams often used life experience as a basis for his plays, filling them with melancholy themes such as despair and alcoholismñelements that haunted his own life. His sister Rose, for example, was mentally ill and eventually endured a prefrontal lobotomy, and Rose was the inspiration for one of William’s early short stories, “Portrait of a Girl in Glass.” Williams reworked this story into a screenplay called The Gentleman Caller, which was uniformly rejected during his tenure in Hollywood, upon which Williams adapted it for the stage and retitled it The Glass Menagerie. Although this was only William’s second play, his constant reworking of it imbued it with a great deal of polish and an enormous depthñall of which are on display in this University Theatre production.

 

The Glass Menagerie plays through December 2 at the Rarig Center, (612) 624-2345.