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Milwaukee Rep's 'Glass Menagerie' a Gritty Portrait of Mental Illness

Mar. 14, 2017
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Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

The Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s staging of the Tennessee Williams classic “memory play,” The Glass Menagerie, is an ambitious portrait of mental illness and tortured familial love. While some of the beauty of the playwright’s famously poetic language is lost in this interpretation, the vision is nonetheless clear and the aim bold and socially relevant.

This is not, as is often the case, an imagining of Menagerie in which memory is fleeting, ethereal or even comedic (despite the comedy written into the script). Here we see a Wingfield family invited back to the Narrator’s (Ryan Imhoff) consciousness and on the brink of mental dissolution. Both mother, Amanda (Hollis Resnik), and sister, Laura (Kelsey Brennan), suffer from crippling social anxiety played out in very different modes and within what modern psychology would recognize as an abusive and co-dependent relationship.

Resnik’s Amanda seems to be a creature who fears death if ever she should cease her constant motion. Her beautiful dialect work, although in line with a traditional take on the character, is paired with a pattering, nearly non-stop delivery and consistently high-strung tone that eschews the comedically abrupt transitions present for her in the script for a frightening portrait of a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Mark Clements’ director’s notes explicate this choice; he shares that he “no longer sees [Amanda] as the slightly comical, over-domineering and sometimes monstrously behaved mother,” but rather one with “tormented love for her children and the obsessive desire for the world to be kind to them in a way that it could not be for her.”

Brennan’s Laura is less extreme but no less tragic. Countering Resnik’s constant motion is a vivid portrayal of inaction in the face of paralyzing fear. Opposite the near-mythic Gentleman Caller (Brandon Dahlquist), she reveals some dynamism, however, and the pair’s deeply uncomfortable, burgeoning flirtation brings the production its greatest degree of realism and heart. As Tom, the playwright’s voice and meta-commentator, Imhoff gives us a decidedly modern delivery. His speaking rhythms are staccato and his tone bitter. This is a gritty Tom who seems torn—not from Williams’ 1940s psyche—but from our 21st-century society. The juxtaposition of his delivery with that of the other performers is somewhat jarring for this reason but also commendably prods us to consider how the allegedly outdated gender, social and psychic relations depicted here continue to plague us today.

Stylistically, the production supports Clements’ reimagining of the work. Of particular note is Philip Witcomb’s scenic design, which features two monumental walls of glass panels punctured by large doors that the Narrator opens and closes throughout the play. Action among the family members and Gentleman Caller occurs both behind these walls and before them, heightening the sense of the Narrator’s memory as permeable, subjective and—despite its sometimes overwhelming content—fundamentally under his control. This is a world which Tom, with all his guilt and regret, has mulled over many times and which informs his creative work through all the subsequent years of his life. We are invited to take a look into his bitter but very human origins.

Through April 9 at the Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse Theater, 108 E. Wells St. For tickets, call 414-224-9490 or visit MilwaukeeRep.com.

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