07/04/03 -The Daily Record

A 'Glass Menagerie' with flaws, highlightsBy William Westhoven, Daily Record

Through July 20
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre
Drew University, Route 124, Madison
Tickets $30-$43
Call (973) 408-5600

Like most American families, the Wingfields have their problems, but they have their moments, too. Like the Wingfields, the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's production of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" has its problems, but has its moments, as well. Abandoned by her husband, former Southern belle Amanda Wingfield is living out her days in a dreary old flat in Depression-era St. Louis, but she still holds hope for her grown children, both of whom still live with her. Tom, a poet and a dreamer, toils at a warehouse job to put food on the table for his mother and sister, Laura. He would gladly leave Amanda behind, but Laura, whose pathological shyness and lame leg have all but imprisoned her in the apartment, remains the tie that binds.

They do have their moments: Tom, at his sister's urging, listens yet again to his mother's tired tale of "entertaining 17 gentlemen callers in a single day" back in Mississippi. Tom and Laura share several tender exchanges, as do Amanda and
Laura, wishing on the moon for a happier life. But Amanda's nagging and meddling are too much for Tom, who rebels and makes hasty exits, ostensibly to spend the evening at the movies, a frequent excuse that Amanda is not shy to voice her suspicion of. Amanda is equally hard on Laura, confronting her about dropping out of business school and bemoaning her lack of gentlemen callers. Laura only finds comfort in caring for her "glass menagerie" of animal figurines that are just as brittle as she is. Given that the play is one of America's best-known and most often produced dramas, many of you know the rest: Tom finally finds a gentleman caller to bring home, Amanda pulls out all the stops to match him up with Laura, but it all ends badly.

Based in part on Williams' own life, "The Glass Menagerie" is, according to Tom in his role as modern-day narrator, "a memory play, and as such is dimly lit." The set, created by Brian Ruggaber, is a marvel of dreary detail. Dark wood walls, old, dark furniture, and a marvelous side alley with metal stairs that go off in three directions create several focal points for the action to unfold. Hovering above the characters on an apartment wall is an old, oval-framed portrait of the family patriarch, "a telephone man who fell in love with long distance," Tom tells us, demonstrating the mixture of tragedy and whimsy that make this such an enduring classic. A sad violin playing in the wings is a fitting soundtrack for a family sharing their blues in a town known for the blues.

So, with an appropriate setting for such a memorable story, what goes wrong? Nothing specific, or at least nothing consistently. All four actors have their moments, yet each  performance has its problems as well. Wendy Barrie-Wilson and Tom Petk off are the most successful as Amanda and Tom, respectively, yet both lose their cultured Southern accents at key moments. Petkoff is best on his own, narrating from the balcony, although he's an unconvincing smoker, a problem when cigarettes are a key prop for your character.

Accents aside, Wilson dominates the stage and is riveting in her more dramatic moments, which are many, as well as the more subtle scenes, such as when she goes through her usual morning routine, waiting with a bemused expression as she anticipates the apology she knows her son will spit out sooner or later.

Katherine Kellgren inhabits Laura with a lovely, fragile flower-like quality. She also has a natural brother-sister chemistry with Petk off, and is radiant when the attentions of the gentleman caller lure her out of her shell. But in Laura's shy mode, she falters a bit. Her limp seems to come and go,  and her body language seems forced and mechanical during the frequent moments when her shyness makes her physically ill.

Kevin Rolston as the gentleman caller is eager and earnest enough, but seems a bit miscast. Handsome, but loud and a bit
of a lout, he hardly appears to be the kind of suave, overachieving lady's man whom Laura, as the story tells you, had a crush on in high school, where he captained the debating team and sang the lead in the senior operetta. Rolston works hard, but director Robert Cuccioli might have made his biggest mistake here. That being said, the mistakes are somewhat minor, and the former New Jersey Shakespeare Festival would seem to have another quality production here to inaugurate its new era as the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. It's hardly the best work they've ever done, but most patrons are likely to go home satisfied.

William Westhoven can be reached at features@dailyrecord.com or (973) 428-6200.

Copyright 2003 Daily Record.