A Glass Menagerie with Strangers in a Small Space
This month, The Company of Strangers Theater opens its second show in Milwaukee with a cozy, little staging of The Glass Menagerie in the Underground Collaborative downtown. The Christian theater group looks to stage shows that might not be traditionally considered to be religious and Tennessee Williams’ play fits the bill quite nicely as it explores themes that echo through corners of the New Testament.
The play begins with a prayer. Then there’s a bit of an introduction directing the audience to think about certain aspects of the characters and how they interact with each other...the nature of love and that sort of thing. It’s a bit of a bold move. Tradition allows a script (especially a 20th century classic by Tennessee Williams) speak for itself as it flows across the stage without any introduction. It feels a bit stilted watching this kind of introduction before things get underway and before the action returns to the stage from intermission, but I can appreciate the novelty of a desire to show a classic in a slightly more thematically explicit context.
Once introductions are aside, we get a small cast delivering a tale of a few people to a stage close enough to feel compellingly earthbound, which is absolutely perfect for Tennessee Williams’ domestic drama. Nate Press delivers a textured portrayal of the ’40s shoe warehouse employee Tom. Press’ restless exhaustion and frustration ricochet against each other in the background of a very charismatic presence. The character is frustrated with family and stagnant life. Press’ portrayal of this restlessness is amplified in the small space of the Underground Collaborative’s Arcade Theatre.
Sandra Baker Renick plays Tom’s mother. She’s renders the thin wallpaper of the faded Southern belle’s apparent joy with such thoughtful cheerlessness around the edges that it almost comes across as weak acting...but when the character is called upon to be genuinely genuine, there’s clearly a passion beneath it all that suggests clever layering on the actress’ part.
Kimberly Laberge’s appearance as Tom’s older sister Laura might be the most interesting bit of casting I’ve seen in a while. Evidently the actress had been an understudy who was asked to stand-in for the role relatively far into rehearsals. Laberge is a senior in high school playing an older sister to a clearly older actor, which might be a bit of a problem for some people who have loved previous incarnations of the drama. I love it, though. The character of Laura was emotionally crippled in high school. Perhaps she really sees herself as a girl in high school. As an audience, we are seeing her the way her family sees her and the way that she sees herself. Laberge is heartbreakingly vulnerable in the role, which is amplified all the more by the fact that she’s actually going through high school right now and actually in kind of a vulnerable position having started out rehearsal as an understudy. Laberge’s scenes at the end of the play are fascinating. It’s amazing to see Laberge open-up as Laura’s high school crush (a co-worker of Tom’s played with energetic charisma by J.J. Gatesman) begins to realize her beauty and become emotionally engaged in her. As an audience, we’re seeing a love expand quite impressively in a endearingly intimate space. This kind of love is so rarely staged in a small space, which is a pity as it’s really well-suited to such a small space.
The Company of Strangers’ production of The Glass Menagerie runs through Mar. 3 at the Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations, visit Eventbrite.