Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Milwaukee Rep presents "The Glass Menagerie"

An American classic, a Milwaukee triumph

I sometimes think I don't deserve my BA in English. Sure I went for Writing, but you'd think I'd still be well versed in famous American playwrights. Alas, no. I couldn't have told you what The Glass Menagerie is about or who wrote it or how very renowned it is as an American masterpiece. 

While seasoned theater-goers might scoff at how much I've yet to learn, I personally think it was a blessing to go into the Milwaukee Rep's production of The Glass Menagerie (mostly) blind. I've read other reviews comparing one production to another — the actors, the staging, the tone. Free from preconceptions, I was able to thoroughly enjoy everything about this Glass Menagerie without reservations or expectations — which is exactly what I did.

For anyone else living under a rock like me, The Glass Menagerie was written by Tennessee Williams and premiered in 1944. It's a five-character memoir play which tells the story of Amanda, a faded southern belle and mother to two grown-up, live-in children: the anxiety-ridden Laura and aspiring poet Tom. The final two characters are Laura's potential suitor, Jim, and the children's father, whose only presence is a portrait looming large in nearly every scene. 

Each character is a dreamer, longing for a different time, place, or circumstance. Amanda yearns for the past — her golden youth and days when she would entertain 17 suitors in one afternoon. Laura finds herself stuck in the present with no future — just crippling shyness and a gimpy leg, halting all hope of a career or love. Tom aches to get out — out of his mother's house, her expectations, and the responsibility he feels toward Laura as the sole provider. 

Through this longing, each has their own escape. For Amanda, it's slipping into a frilly old dress that was once en vogue, and the retelling of stories — a far-off look in her eyes. For Tom, his escape is poetry and scheming plans for the future. For Laura, it's her glass menagerie — a tiny crystal kingdom, dazzling and all her own. It's also every bit as delicate and breakable as her family.

I imagine with such brilliant writing you'd feel for these characters no matter what, but with Hollis Resnik, Kelsey Brennan, and Ryan Imhoff as Amanda, Laura, and Tom (respectively), this Rep family is one that will have your heart soaring one minute and shattered the next. Resnik is absolutely spellbinding. When she spins tales of days gone by, it's mesmerizing. When she talks a mile a minute, oozing charm and melodrama, it's a hoot. Milwaukee Rep, please bring Hollis Resnik back! I want to see what else she can do. 

As for the children, I read that some actors play Laura with a shade of defiance — but not Brennan. Her Laura is an utterly dependent, shrinking violet whose plight you really feel for. Imhoff as Tom and the narrator is (I feel) equal parts goon and short fuse, with a dash of sarcasm and a pinch of sincerity. He's certainly fun to watch. Also a quick shout out to the suitor Jim, played by the charming Brandon Dahlquist. Jim shows a more healthy relationship with the past and the future, reveling in his high school glory days, while also investing in his future through night school. 

It's interesting to see how these characters' woes are entwined with and reflected in each other. Mirrored glass even literally plays a part in the Rep's Glass Menagerie, as the stage is set with two floor-to-ceiling glass walls. Behind wall number one, a large projection of Father's portrait — the reminder of him ever present. Behind wall number two, a dining room table where multiple scenes play out.

Given the angle, only two sections of the audience (if that) are able to see beyond this wall. My section of the Quadracci Powerhouse (section 6) had to settle instead for hearing the dining room scenes, like an eavesdropper in the other room. Strangely it still worked for me. There's a moment where Laura sits on the central, always-visible sofa while the others rollick in the dining room. Not seeing the festivities sets your focus acutely on Laura's anxiety and the apartness she feels — a poignant moment. 

Indeed, there are many poignant moments in the Rep's Glass Menagerie. This story and these performances stick with you. Though I'm curious now to see other versions of the Tennessee William's classic, the Rep set the bar insanely high. This was an unforgettable night of theater and one that any company of players will be hard pressed to top.

The Glass Menagerie is playing at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater now through April 9th. Info and tickets at

*Photos by Michael Brosilow.

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