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'The Glass Menagerie'
By: Stuart Duncan , TimeOFF 07/01/2003
 

Robert Petkoff is Tom and Wendy Barrie-Wilson plays Amanda in The Glass Menagerie, on stage at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey through July 20. There is nothing amiss about The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's staging of Tennessee Williams' autobiographical classic.

The Wingfield family of St. Louis may be dysfunctional, but there is nothing amiss about The Glass Menagerie on stage at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. The play, considered Tennessee Williams' most autobiographical, is getting a fresh, compelling airing by director Robert Cuccioli and a cast of four that not only rises to the level of "must-see" but delivers one of the finest productions of any Williams' work ever seen.

You will remember from stagings dating from 1945 (with Laurette Taylor) that the evening is described as "a memory play." There have been three movies, one in 1950 with Gertrude Lawrence and Jane Wyman; another in 1973 with the late Katharine Hepburn; and yet another in 1987 with Joanne Woodward and husband Paul Newman directing. More recently, there have been productions at Paper Mill, McCarter and George Street. Our setting is a small apartment, looking onto an alley, in St. Louis. And our guide is Tom Wingfield (Williams himself). He tells us that, being "a memory play," there will be music and sometimes shadows, as befits recollections.And indeed, Bruce Auerbach's lighting and sound designer Richard Dionne's choice of music bring new insights to the work.

Robert Cuciolli does not come naturally to the play. He is, in fact, primarily a musical-theater talent (with fine appearances as Javert in Broadway's Les Misérables and in the title roles of Jekyll and Hyde). But he has eschewed the temptation to play the tents of music circuses throughout the country in favor of honing his craft: Mark Antony in Antony  and Cleopatra; more recently the lead in the world premiere of Fiction at Princeton's McCarter Theatre. He admits that Menagerie is his first try at directing a "straight" play, and that he had never seen nor read the work and resisted seeing any of the films.

What has happened is that he and his actors have found moments never seen in past productions. One example will suffice: The first act is subtitled "Preparation for the Gentleman-Caller." And when Tom casually announces he is bringing a young man home for dinner from the warehouse where
both work, his mother, Amanda, turns positively giddy. No hint of the future, no traces of Medea so common in other Amandas — just happily giddy.
You see what director Cuccioli and his company — Robert Petkoff as Tom; Wendy Barrie-Wilson as a superb Amanda; Katherine Kellgren as the fragile Laura; and Kevin Rolston as the Gentleman-Caller of Act II — have discovered is that Amanda is not just the raging control freak so often offered, but a mother desperate to hold the family together. That daughter Laura is as breakable as the glass animals she so prizes, but much of it is in her mind, and her limp may be as unreal as her pet unicorn. In real life, Williams' sister will end up in a mental institution and receive one of the last frontal lobotomies performed. One cannot say enough about the cast. Ms. Barrie-Wilson is a marvelously complicated Amanda — caring, furious, flirtatious, supplicating, living in the past even as she is  determined to construct a future. Katherine Kellgren is a thoroughly believable Laura, the agony of shyness on her face replaced by a glow, only to be shadowed by reality. Mr. Petkoff is a confident Tom, meeting his demons with determination but always ready to blame his missing father for his wanderlust. The surprise of the evening, however, is Mr. Rolston. He has been seen in small roles over the past three seasons, but nothing has prepared us for this performance, which turns memories of other actors in the role to smoke. He so completely dominates Act II that it becomes his play as never before. At one point as he is talking about the virtues of his public-speaking course, he uses a gesture that could only have come from an actual demonstration. And, sure enough, Mr. Rolston did take such a course, and indeed he has remembered the gesture and used it. And so "a memory play" throws off the dust of six decades and becomes fodder for today. This production will burn itself  into your own memory.

The Glass Menagerie continues at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, Drew University, 36 Madison Ave., Madison, through July 20. Performances: Tue.-Wed., Fri. 8 p.m., Thurs. 8 p.m. (7:30 p.m. July 3), Sat. 2, 8 p.m., Sun. 2, 7 p.m. (2 p.m. only July 20), July 16, 2 p.m. Tickets cost $29-$43. For information, call (973) 408-5600. On the Web: www.shakespearenj.org

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