In a world of broken dreams, steep falls and wanderlust, what does it mean to be fragile glass that can be shattered by any of these? According to Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, these broken dreams can be our great equalizer. This journey of melancholy and hope played in Kelsey Theatre, Oct. 15 through 18, and was co-directed by St. Olaf College alumna Lauren Bartelt ’12 and Artist in Residence Dona Freeman.
Set as a memory, the show follows the unsatisfying stagnation of everyday life as a result of the rising and inescapable tensions at home that finally inspire Tom, a young man played by Dylan Stratton ’16, into leaving, even if it means abandoning his intensely shy and physically disabled sister, Laura. In this flashback, Laura, played by Tara Schaefle ’16, battles her constant anxiety through escaping into the reverie of her glass menagerie as she struggles to find her own way in the world. Despite embarrassing past failures, she remains hopeful even as her first brush with love, Jim played by Jordan Solei ’15, is not the happy ending she and her mother, Amanda played by Freeman, expected.
The acting felt so natural that the audience was confused over what was imaginary and what was real. For instance, when Freeman spilled lemonade on herself and shrieked that she was “re-baptizing” herself, the audience fell into titters and many gazed at Freeman with disbelief and deep respect. Many students believed that Freeman had improvised the line as a result of the glass shaking, commenting on it as they left the theatre. The action and line are both in the play, but Freeman’s organic acting convinced the audience that it was all an accident.
Stratton’s reactive imitations of Freeman when she recited the story of her 17 suitors was relatable for any annoyed teen. Likewise, his monologue about the “horrors” had everyone wrapped up with the mounted frustration felt within the mother and son relationship that was reaching a breaking point.
Solei’s character is a good ol’ boy who seems so interested in the fate of Laura’s glass unicorn that you’d swear it was his to begin with. It’s hard to be mad at him for kissing Laura when he’s already engaged – his apologies are real.
Schaefle plays a delicate Laura who somehow seems incredibly strong in the depths of her mind with a cheerfulness that saves her from despair or slipping into meekness. While the stage light actually covered all actors equally, Schaefle sparkled and drew the focus of the audience to her quiet voice and broken sobs.
The entire play was encased within an off-kilter frame that changed tone by the images projected upon it. The program stated that it is Tom’s imagination, yet at times it seemed like Laura’s. There were moments, such as when Freeman ripped apart the typewriter guide, that the images became traumatizingly splattered in exaggeration, like the images of the keys raining from the ruins of typewriters and shattered inkwells exploding ink across the smears of her mind. These images were not logical or inspirational like those representing Tom’s point of view. Instead, they provided insight into why Laura often screamed and hid from what seemed to the audience to be normal situations, by making them grotesque or more beautiful – such as the progressively accumulating mountain of blue roses that blush to pink and become more than an idea.
For a play often remembered for its focus on glass, this production instead chose to concentrate on images of fire, smoke and matches, including that the house technically was encased in a matchbox. Beyond being another reference to smoke and mirrors, and therefore illusions, it could show how once the match is lit, the dreams are like smoke – the characters can grab for them all they want, but they will never be able to hold them in their hands. The match itself has potential that is forever untapped until it is lit, but even then it burns out and the dream is over. This could be seen when the projection of the matchboxes turned to black and white when Jim left and when Tom and Amanda fought. Finally, Jim is seen as the only one who actually lights a match, which fits his line, “I’m superman.” It complements the idea that only their source of hope, “long delayed but expected but that which we live for,” can bring them their adventure and goals, which ultimately end when the match does.
Another notable scenery choice was a clear absence of green. In heavily draping everything with its converse, red, the sense of illusion is strengthened. It does make things dreamier.
And yet, the reality of Tom’s disappearance comes careening to the forefront through the heart-wrenching last scene. As Tom narrated his attempts to block out Laura, she gazed gently into the candles, as if fondly watching him. As he begged her to blow out the candles and let him go, she deliberately blew them out one by one, matching the tempo of her lullaby-like theme, leaving the audience wanting to scream for her not to blow out the last candle, not to let this happen, and yet feeling strangely caught up in her belief that he will be all right, assured by her unconditional love for him. So when the last candle, lit by Jim, is blown out, all the dreams are over and there is only the end.