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Short North Stage’s The Glass Menagerie Runs Through October 1

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Short North Stage’s The Glass Menagerie Runs Through October 1Scott Hunt as Tom, left to right, saying grace with Gina Handy as his mother Amanda and Evin Hoffman as Jim, the Gentleman Caller in the Short North Stage production of The Glass Menagerie. Photo by Nick Lingnofski.
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The Glass Menagerie has lost none of its ability to darkly resonate with audiences, even 71 years after its Broadway debut. Short North Stage proves that again with their stellar new production directed by Edward Carignan opening this weekend.

The Glass Menagerie retains its power perched at the intersection of rich, poetic, language and the ugly truth of how precarious everyone is. Tom Wingfield (Scott Hunt), a sometimes-poet warehouse worker, has let his fragility turn into brittleness. Tom tries to lose himself in drink and movies, but we only see him when he’s staggered back to his family’s suffocating home. Tom tries to serve as provider in the wake of their absent father. This father hangs over them literally, a prominent photograph stares down at the set, and metaphorically. As Tom says, “The last we heard of him was a picture postcard from Mazatlan, on the Pacific coast of Mexico, containing a message of two words: ‘Hello – Goodbye!’ and no address.”

The rest of the family left behind is Tom’s mother Amanda (Gina Handy). Amanda’s teetering desperation radiates out from her as she wields her charm, intellect, and cunning, like a gourmand assassin, discussing and delectating her instruments of destruction before deploying them. Amanda’s pride feels like the only thing keeping her fire burning. While Tom wanders, Amanda’s principal target is her daughter Laura (Jeannette Newton). Laura’s spun-glass quality means the slightest crack exposes her twitching nerves to the air and a harsh breath could shatter her.

Jeanette Newton as Laura in the Short North Stage production of The Glass Menagerie. Photo by Nick Lingnofski.

Jeanette Newton as Laura in the Short North Stage production of The Glass Menagerie. Photo by Nick Lingnofski.

Tom’s last-ditch effort to leave his family in a better place and knock a door in the wall for himself comes with his co-worker and a former high school classmate of he and Laura, Jim O’Connor (Evin Hoffman). Jim echoes Amanda’s trading on past glories and unflappable optimism. He comes into their little St Louis house with a breath of energy and what we’re sure is another “great” plan to get back on top, in another set back that might be his final fall.

Edward Carignan understands that the one set the play takes place on has to resonate with reality but sit at an angle from it. Scenic Designer Jason Bolen has outdone himself here in the most dramatic re-visioning of the Garden Theater’s Green Room yet. The stage is sunken with seats on both sides in new curving platforms so the audience literally looks down at the characters. The effect is like we’re Romans hungry for blood to be spilled. The only time the characters are at our level is when Tom narrates or talks about the future on the house’s “terrace”, a platform to the side. The only hint of the outside world cracking the claustrophobia of this marvelous set is a telephone line strung across the top with era-perfect glass insulators. Rebecca White’s subtle costumes – especially the vintage dress-as-burial garment Handy wears in the second act – also emphasize and play with the time period and underline the surging emotions here. A minor warning: even with being advised properly by the usher, this critic still stumbled on the step down immediately after the step up and spilled a drink immediately entering the set. Watch your step!

Carignan and the actors attack this material with a caged-animal ferocity. Everything breathes but the throttle is down at all times. Amanda Wingfield is one of the great characters of American drama and you’re unlikely to see a better, sadder, more vicious take than Gina Handy gives her here. The physical intensity of her performance lands laughs and jabs with the unshakable certainty that they’re the same thing. And they always are. She crumbles into a slow realization that things aren’t going to get better but never quite gets self-aware enough to realize her grabbing for hand-holds just pulls her children down instead of stopping her own fall. Her flirtatious interaction with Evin Hoffman’s Jim is astonishing. It evokes the powerhouse both of them were in their prime just enough to drive a nail in the coffin of those past selves.

The two Wingfield children squeeze every drop of heartbreak out of their roles. Scott Hunt’s Tom uses an economy of gesture to emphasize his character’s desperation to break out of his old habits and do something. Flashes of energy slip over his sagging frame and light the whole stage. Jeannette Newton’s Laura is devastating. Watching her expressive face crack with the pure light of joy and then slide back into the safe, scared shadow is marvelous and terrible every time. Her interplay with Hoffman’s Jim and her frantic attempts to console him are sad and real in the way for which theatre is best suited.

There’s always room in our lives for tragedy. The physical nature of theatre makes it immaculately suited for the kind of empathy this play demands. And with the sure hands of Carignan and his cast, this production is a reminder of our shared humanity.

The Glass Menagerie runs through October 1 with performances at 8:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3:00 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit shortnorthstage.org

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