Remembering Romance Under The Setting Sun in ‘The Glass Menagerie’

The premise of the well-known American drama The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams centers around single mother Amanda Wingfield, her oldest son Tom, and his little sister Laura who have found themselves in a financial squeeze since only Tom is able to work. Out of desperation, Amanda decides to try and set Laura up with a “gentleman caller,” a man from Tom’s work named Jim. What differs in this production is the centering of people of color and women in the casting of the play, a point of artistic pride for director Lisa Portes. Amanda and Laura’s predicament doesn’t come across as the result of a debutante who doesn’t believe women should toil, but rather a societal limitation imposed by the times (the play is set in St. Louis in 1937). This increased my empathy for these characters ten-fold.

The  Glass Menagerie is a play I read and loved, but quickly shelved because I didn’t want to get too attached a play in which I’d never be cast. This is why Lisa Portes’ direction of The Glass Menagerie at Cal Shakes is so essential for children of color to see, and within the first five minutes I was envious of all the young people and students who will see this play and never question their place in it.

Tom, played by Bay Area legend and Campo Santo Co-Founder Sean San José, is the first character we see. As narrator and character, he is the crux for most of the movement in the play, master of this dream universe, and guides the moving furniture around the space. These movements increase in difficulty and attention as the play moves forward, which creates the feeling that this memory play and this family is only held together by Tom’s sheer effort. This made me pay attention to Raquelle Baretto’s costume design – they have put together easy to wear and move in pieces for the artists that are elegant and often striking. The opening design and staging of the play is a wonderful duet between costumes and lighting (Xavier Pierce) that lives in a moment beyond time. Baretto makes use of Laura’s affectionate nickname “Blue Roses” by dressing Laura in a sweet patterned dress covered in blue roses.

Sean San José’s gentle depiction of Tom creates a generosity of spirit this character is usually denied. This pays off when Tom breaks the menagerie animal, he finally becomes frustrated and dangerous in his ability to hurt the family. At particular risk in this play is his differently abled sister Laura, played by New York based poet and activist Phoebe Fico. Fico makes a striking and elegant stage debut as Laura, and we empathize with her at every turn. Laura is a character that I’ve usually seen played with a debilitated spirit, but Fico’s Laura is full of endearing smiles and sweet quips that make her moments of devastation hurt even more. Phoebe Fico sparkles in her acting debut, and deftly works the broad Cal Shakes stage with an inherent grace. I could tell it was her debut – if only because everyone else onstage is so seasoned – yet I found myself completely forgiving the absence of technical training in exchange for the genuine light that exudes from Fico. I support Cal Shakes’ decision to debut a new actress on an equity stage. A tradition of the past, it is incredibly rare to do so now, but the risk paid off tremendously.

Karen Aldridge gives a hilarious and warm tour de force of a performance as Amanda. When attempting to get Tom to bring home a gentleman caller, she hollers at him from the front porch as he traverses through the audience to get to work, eventually eliciting applause from the audience at the end of this scene on opening night. A particularly slick bit of directing from Lisa Portes and Aldridge’s animated demeanor gives life to a typically dull scene: Tom describing Jim, the gentleman caller to Amanda. Tom and Amanda move together to construct the full parlor including hanging windows and arranging the dining table during this exchange, giving it buoyancy.

The set, designed by Annie Smart, is bare and simple but surprisingly flexible. One of the most difficult things about the Cal Shakes space is how to define it. Each designer and director has to decide where the limits are for their world and build something to illustrate that, and though you can’t cover the forest landscape you can decide how to utilize it. In this design, a huge frame gives us the context of the home, and it worked in pulling my focus to the center. As it got dark I don’t particularly recall seeing the forest and even when it was visible it felt more like looking through a window. Rolling and hanging furniture is slid into place during the play, and the worst thing I have to say about it is that I was so struck by its compositional beauty I thought it was all a bit too nice for the financially challenged Wingfields. However, it’s a memory play, and who complains about things being unbelievably pretty?

As the set comes together and time marches on, the gentleman caller advances, and his entrance is beautifully highlighted by Brendan Aanes’ haunting sound effects. When we are thrust into this romantic memory by the arrival of Jim, the effervescent Rafael Jordan, a truly magical feat in the field of lighting is delivered by Xavier Pierce. He gives us parlor candlelight, despite the fact that we are outside and it’s dusk. It’s gradual and does not try to pretend that we are not outside, which makes it feel even more real once the light cue settles. I gasped, and everyone outside the show was talking about that visually stunning moment.

The Glass Menagerie is a stunning memory play and a must-see experience at the Cal Shakes Bruns Amphitheater. It runs through July 30th!

Tom: Sean San José
Amanda: Karen Aldridge
Laura: Phoebe Fico
Jim: Rafael Jordan

Director: Lisa Portes
Playwright: Tennessee Williams
Dramaturg: Philippa Kelly
Stage Manager: Cheryle Honerlah
Asst. Stage Manager: Laxmi Kumaran
Lighting Designer: Xavier Pierce
Scenic Designer: Annie Smart
Costume Designer: Raquel Barreto
Sound Designer: Brendan Aanes
Casting Director: Clea Shapiro
Acting Coach: Margo Hall
Text, Vocal and Dialect Coach: Lynne Soffer

Photos: Kevin Berne

BIAS ALERT: This writer worked for Cal Shakes in various capacities including understudying, ending in 2016.

Gil Scott-Heron’s “Grandeur” is Eclipsed by Addiction

Grandeur, a play by Han Ong produced by Magic Theatre in San Francisco, is an intimate play about a larger than life performer, Gil Scott-Heron.  A black writer, poet, performer and political activist, Scott- Heron is famous for being the “Godfather of Rap”. His words and his songs have been sampled over and over, by Salt-N-Pepa, Kanye, Common, Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Rihanna and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. His influence on rap and hip hop as as artforms and as tools of political expression cannot be overstated. This play takes place in a single afternoon after his final album release I’m New Here, 40 years after his heyday, and many years into a crippling crack addiction. Grandeur is playwright Han Ong’s return to the stage after a sixteen-year absence. One of youngest recipients of the MacArthur Genius Grant,his talent shines through in this nimble and absorbing play. It’s a tour de force for Carl Lumbly who plays Gil Scott-Heron with a sharpness and a humor that stings and entertains. And yet, fourteen months ago when I was a member of the Magic Theatre Literary committee, I read the play and had strong reservations.

Sitting the audience, I was prepared to have my mind changed, and in many ways it was. Dialogue that had fallen flat to me on the page crackled onstage with the direction of Magic’s Artistic Director Loretta Greco. The underwriting of Steve Barron (Rafael Jordan), the aspiring New York Review of Books journalist interviewing Gil Scott-Heron, seemed more of a deliberate choice to make him an everyman rather than a lack of interest by Ong in anyone who wasn’t Gil Scott-Heron. But the question that had caused me to reject the play in my initial reading still filled the back of my mind: Why tell this Gil Scott-Heron story?

Grandeur is a good play. It has on a refreshingly straight forward, non moralistic attitude towards drug addiction. Scott-Heron is affected by his crack use, but he’s not a groveling, pathetic lesson. He’s an ornery, expressive old man with a gift for one liners, little patience, and a knack for getting people to give him what he wants. The single flashback that portrays him completely and uncontrollably high as the train rushes onward, and tweets about his career and downfall flash by is one of the most inventive and visually interesting scenes in the entire play. Miss Julie (Safiya Fredericks), his honorary niece and caretaker is a sharp reminder of all the women who keep the careers of famous men afloat without receiving any of the credit. Jordan’s acting talent shines in the second act as his anger at Scott-Heron for losing his heroic luster bursts through, and it becomes clear that Scott-Heron represents Barron’s deepest ambitions and his greatest fears as a black man and writer.

There is only so much space on the stage. Every theater company, every year wades through hundreds of options to decide what four, six, eight stories are worthy of being told that season on their stage, and even in the most progressive of theaters there is a comfort in familiarity. We produce and watch the same shocking and “edgy” stories over and over again until they become part of our consciousness. Lesbians die, women are madonnas and whores, and black men are felled by drugs. On stages across the country, smart, accomplished playwrights examined these tropes, they investigate them, they burst them open, they show their flaws and why these stereotypes are harmful. Yyet the logical next step of writing plays that don’t include these stereotypes, that don’t rely on exploiting the pain of minorities or have women who are people and not metaphors seems ever evasive.
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Grandeur is a play about a man who’s most famous work is “The Revolution will not be Televised”, but this Gil Scott-Heron story is entirely non-threatening for white consumption. It’s is a safe story, centered around his crack addiction, and with very little about his music and almost nothing about his politics. It’s a play about a writer’s last hurrah long after his drive for success has dried up. A story that Ong, who’s spoken publically about falling out of love with dramatic writing after staggering initial success may have felt a strong kinship with.

There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to explore stories about forgotten icons after the world has moved on without them, and telling stories about addiction without moralizing is an impulse I applaud. But every theater makes choices. Staging a play about a black man famous for his anger at the treatment of black Americans and his revolutionary music that expressed it, and stripping all of that away to make a story about addiction that ends with Scott-Heron taunting his interviewer saying “don’t you wanna look away?” as he lights up, the glow of the crack pipe in the dark theater as the final image the audience sees, is a choice. Similar choices are made in theaters across America everyday, and it says something about the stories that we’re comfortable telling, and what we see as worthy of our time, money, and stages.

Grandeur runs through June 25th. find more information here

Cast

Gil Scott-Heron: Carl Lumbly

Steve Barron: Rafael Jordan

Miss Julie: Safiya Fredericks

Creative Team

Set & Projection Design: Hana S. Kim

Costume Design: Alex Jaeger

Lighting Design: Ray Oppenheimer

Sound Design: Sara Huddleston

Stage Manager: Kevin Johnson

Dramaturg: Sonia Fernandez

Director of Production: Sara Huddleston

Props Design: Jacquelyn Scott

Local Casting Sonia Fernandez

Press Photos: Jennifer Reiley