Strong performances in fragile Menagerie

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Dan Collins

Laura (Anna Steuerman), usuallly a shy recluse, dances with her gentleman caller, Jim (Flynn Harne), in the Vagabond Players’ production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie.
Photo by Shealyn Jae Photography

On the surface, it would seem that Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie is out of step with our modern, take-charge, do-it-yourself times.

A young woman, suffering from a permanent limp, lives like a hot house plant in a self-made purgatory. Meanwhile, her mother sees men as walking financial plans. Isn’t that sexist?

Tom, the soon-to-be-prodigal son, seems like a stereotype of the slacker who, when he isn’t off playing his 1930s version of Xbox (going to the movies every night), is mansplaining to both audience and family alike, while the “gentleman caller” Jim is a prequel to The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.

So why is a play that debuted 73 years ago being performed today by the Vagabond Players in downtown Baltimore (and being enthusiastically received, if the audience I witnessed is any indication)?

Because Williams’ work transcends time as a graceful, poignant tale of human needs denied — love, freedom, ambition, a parent’s hope for her children. These are as vital and important now as they were nearly three-quarters of a century ago.   

Glass prisons

Every character in Williams’ tragedy is one who is trapped — by circumstance, by familial duty, by memory.

The beating heart of the play is the Wingfield family matriarch, Amanda, played with great aplomb by Lynda McClary, with whom this writer had the opportunity to work as an actor in 2012, when she directed The Iceman Cometh at Fells Point Corner Theater.

McClary proves herself an individual of many talents, whether on stage or in the director’s chair. She crafts a powerful portrait of a fallen Southern belle, a role a lesser actor could easily let slip into caricature.

Whether flitting across the stage in full Scarlett O’Hara mode as she reminisces about her “17 gentleman callers,” or suffering ennui at the foot of her “long-distance loving” husband’s portrait, or standing toe to toe with her recalcitrant son and fighting waves of desperation at the unfathomable riddle that is her daughter, McClary’s Amanda is, above all, a survivor.

Despite the emotional maelstrom about her, she remains pragmatic and perseveres. Taking her seat by the living room phone like a soldier at her post, she warms to the task of telemarketer — using her charm to coax women into renewing magazine subscriptions.

The Glass Menagerie is a play where every character could be cast in the role of Tantalus in the famed Greek myth, each “oh, so close” to getting what they want — that which could save and satiate their spirits almost within reach — only to watch it fall from their grasp and shatter, like Laura’s glass unicorn.

A multi-faceted Laura

It is fitting that the treasure of Amanda’s daughter, Laura, is what shatters, for her loss, as seen in actress Anna Steuerman’s performance, is most heart-breaking of all.

With the fewest lines in the play, Steuerman still forms a three dimensional character in the delicate, fragile Laura, conveying emotion — ranging from barely contained joy to enormous pain — with the turn of her head, a flex of her shoulder, the slight, bird-like movements of her arms, her pitiable gait.

Yet, it’s never overdone, never degenerating into comedy. Williams wants your heart to ache for Laura, and Steuerman’s performance achieves just that.

Don Kammann is Tom Wingfield, who serves a dual role as both character and narrator. Like the rest of his family, Tom is trapped — by a dead-end job, and by the needs of his mother and sister that he can’t escape. 

Of all the roles in the play, Tom’s may be the most challenging, as his character doesn’t afford much sympathy. Unlike Amanda, who is weighted down by lost youth, and Laura, by her disability, Tom has no ball and chain about him other than his own feelings of guilt which, ultimately, he finds a way to shed.

What Kammann brings most to his role comes from his physical presence. His height and strength as he moves forcefully across stage, looming tall over his mother and sister reveal he has a power the others do not.

But his role is vital, for he is the one who introduces the element that energizes the play, the key that might release all three Wingfields from their prisons: “the gentleman caller,” Jim O’Connor, played by Flynn Harne.

O’Connor, whose fedora and vest convey that he is a “man on the rise,” is another character who could easily degenerate into stereotype. But Williams’ prose and Harne’s performance keep him human.

Ironically enough, we find that O’Connor is really no more a key to freedom than anyone else striding the stage, and in fact, may be just as trapped.

Harne paints O’Connor as out of the Dale Carnegie mold — someone who first views Laura as a reclamation project upon which he can test his new public speaking skills, but comes to see her as a woman he might desire to call upon again…if only for one small detail. And it is that detail that forms a prison of his own.

Kudos to director Michael Byrne Zemarel for instilling a spritely pace in a work that could have bogged down into melodrama and sentimentality. Though all the action takes place in the Wingfield’s small St. Louis apartment, the cast and crew, with deft use of light and sound and the tinkling music of the “nearby dance hall,” create a world both caught in time, and yet timeless, as is Williams’ famed work.

The Glass Menagerie continues its run at the Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway in Fells Point, through Oct. 1. Tickets are $10 on Thursdays, $15 on Fridays, and $20 on Saturdays and Sundays. There is a weekend senior discount price of $17.

For more details and ticket information, visit www.vagabondplayers.org or call (410) 563-9135.