Few American playwrights are as well-known as Tennessee Williams. With works such as “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Williams cemented his place as a preeminent 20th century playwright.
He originally propelled into fame with "The Glass Menagerie,” his most personal play, which provides deep insights into his life and familial relationships. The play had its first preview Wednesday night at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Temple Building in a production by Nebraska Repertory Theater.
“The Glass Menagerie” is an autobiographical look at Williams’ own family dynamics with his mother and sister. Following the Wingfield family — Tom (Ben Page), his sister Laura (Kami Cooper) and his mother Amanda (Donna Steele) — the play chronicles the slow decay in their family unit that led to Tom leaving his mother and sister and joining the merchant marines.
The Nebraska Rep’s production opens with Tom alone on the deck of a ship, addressing the audience to introduce the story they are about to see. As he speaks, the stage is slowly transformed into the Wingfield’s apartment in 1930s St. Louis as furniture is pushed on stage and two walls are lowered. From there, the plot alternates between scenes of the three family members and Tom’s narration.
The trio each feels stuck in his or her life. Tom is an aspiring poet who is burdened with his overbearing mom and factory job. Amanda longs for her youth, telling idyllic stories about her past life as a Southern belle, and she is obsessed with setting up her daughter with a man. Laura suffers from a permanently handicapped leg, and she is painfully shy. After dropping out of school and withdrawing from the rest of the world, she focuses on her menagerie of glass animals.
Page, Cooper and Steele all effectively portray their respective characters’ inner turmoil, manifesting it in the increasingly tense atmosphere of the Wingfield household. Page and Steele, members of the Actors’ Equity Association, especially shine at conveying the love-hate relationship between mother and son — though Steele is sometimes encumbered by an inconsistent, unclear faux southern accent. Combine their performances with Williams’ timeless script and the result is a mostly compelling theater-going experience.
Where this production falls down is in the supporting elements. When first arriving in the theater, it’s striking how intricate the ship set is. As Tom is giving his opening monologue, smoke shoots from a smokestack, and multiple parts of the ship spin and move around. It’s quite impressive for a production of its relatively small size.
But these visually interesting technical pieces are never used again until the ending scene, and it’s a bit distracting during the rest of the show as the action unfolds with an out-of-place ship looming in the background. Additionally, the ship is not a typical element in “The Glass Menagerie,” as it seems it was added entirely by choice of the Nebraska Rep team. It’s perplexing that this elaborate set is truly only utilized at the very beginning and end of the show.
Another clunky element of the show lies in the fourth character — Jim O’Connor, the gentleman caller introduced in the second act. Played by Michael Zavodny, the character is a friend and coworker of Tom’s who is brought into the Wingfield home for dinner in hopes that Laura will catch his eye.
Unfortunately, Zavodny’s performance is too often stiff and awkward. The character is supposed to be earnest, but Zavodny overplays this trait with overly loud dialogue and a short, choppy laugh. He isn’t unwatchable, but many of his tender scenes with Laura lose their luster due to his performance.
Overall, “The Glass Menagerie” is an appealing look at a fractured family trio. Backed by generally solid performances and staging, the Rep’s production overcomes its shortcomings to deliver on Williams’ classic story.