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A Touch of Glass

Tennessee Williams opens the season as San Jose Stage Company breaks out 'The Glass Menagerie.'

By Marianne Messina

Tennessee Williams wrote The Glass Menagerie, largely considered autobiographical, back in the day when an aging single mom could only hope to provide for her emotionally handicapped daughter by marrying her off. Or does that premise still play today? At San Jose Stage Company, artistic director Randall King and director Jim Meese think so. They've been running an obstacle course for the performance rights to The Glass Menagerie for almost 10 years.

When they landed the rights, "There were still caveats on the contract," says King. "We had to perform it before the end of 2004." That's because, as Playbill recently announced, the play is slated to open on Broadway in March 2005, starring Ethan Hawke (Tom) and Jessica Lange (Amanda). In other words, eternally young, The Glass Menagerie is poised for yet another heyday.

Its protagonist, Amanda, should be so lucky. As a Southern belle, Amanda had been on a lady-of-the-manor career path with plenty of prospects until the path suddenly veered off a cliff—director Jim Meese sums up it when he describes Amanda as what Scarlett O'Hara would have become if "her life had gone completely wrong, and she met the wrong guy, and he dumped her and she was stuck with three kids." Amanda's nostalgic longings stir up the universal need to come to terms with regret, a theme that inspired Meese to depart from the vogue in casting Amanda's son, Tom.

Rather than casting a young man the age of an Ethan Hawke, Meese wanted to cast baby boomer King in the role. "When Jim brought it up to me," King says, "I thought, 'You're crazy, man.' I mean, I haven't thought about doing that part since college." But Eddie Dowling, the actor who first played Tom, was in his 50s. An older Tom gives the narrator the same distance from his past as Amanda has from hers, and it gives the play a frame of regret within regret. So Tom's final words move into sympathetic vibration with Amanda's. "There's a great speech at the end," King points out, "where [Tom] says, you know, 'I took after my father. ... I began traveling a great deal. ... I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something,' and you get the sense that this is not a recent haunt, this is a haunt that this guy has carried for 15 or 20 years, and he's thinking about this poor sister that he loved so much but he couldn't help." And there's a third voice of regret in the play—the playwright's. King believes Williams used this play to work through his regret for not having helped his sister, Rose, when, in hopes of curing her mental illness, the family approved a prefrontal lobotomy.

But there's also a light side to the play, which Meese notes most productions have sadly lacked. He points out that Laurette Taylor, who played Amanda in the original, had formerly been a talented comedienne. When Meese cast Maureen McVerry as Amanda, he saw someone who could bring both tragic and comedic nuances to the complex Amanda. McVerry also reminded Meese of his Southern-bred relatives, including his mom. "There's the way they carry themselves," Meese says with admiration. And McVerry has it. Over the years, Meese has stalked this play from venue to venue, and after seeing countless productions, he remarks on how easily so many companies turned Amanda into a Southern cliché. "They didn't really have an honest approach to it." San Jose Stage Company is shooting for an honesty equal to the power of Williams' poetry.

The Glass Menagerie, a San Jose Stage Company production, previews Wednesday-Thursday at 7:30pm and Friday at 8pm and opens Saturday at 8pm at the Stage, 490 S. First St., San Jose. Regular shows are Wednesday-Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through Oct. 24. Tickets are $20-$42. (408.283.7142)

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From the September 29-October 5, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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