Next Stage Repertory Company's take on Tennessee Williams' memory play "The Glass Menagerie" follows the playwright's cues for "pleasant disguises of illusion" more than any literal translation of the drama.
The four characters in "Menagerie" are archetypes of Williams' own family members, as are other forceful Williams roles such as Blanche duBois in "A Streetcar Named Desire."
What: "The Glass Menagerie"
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Sept. 6-7, and Friday, Sept. 13; 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14
Where: Craterian Theater,
23 S. Central Ave., Medford
Tickets: $15 for all seats
Call: 541-779-3000 or see www.craterian.org
The play tells the story of Tom, a young man who aspires to become a poet; his disabled sister, Laura; their controlling mother, Amanda; and the family's fragile grip on reality.
Born Thomas Lanier Williams III, the playwright had a mother who imagined herself as a Southern belle — much like Amanda in "Menagerie" and Blanche in "Streetcar" — and a sister who was shy and delicate.
"As a great writer, Williams is tapping into information that's influenced him deeply and personally," says Doug Warner, artistic director of Next Stage. "He's going back in time to the tenement house where he lived with his mother and sister. He's looking at a period of his life as an insider as well as an outsider. That's what makes the characters so beautiful and scary."
Tom is stifled by his mother's will to keep him at work in a factory; Laura is a wounded bird and consoles herself with her collection of small, glass animals; and Amanda imagines herself as an elite society member, though her husband has abandoned her in the midst of the Great Depression.
Next Stage Repertory's cast features Rogue Valley actors Presila Quinby as Amanda, Justin Cowan as Tom, Hannah Grenfell as Laura and Adam Cuppy as Jim, the gentleman coming to dinner.
Performances are set for 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Sept. 6-7, and Friday, Sept. 13, at the Craterian Theater, 23 S. Central Ave., Medford. A matinee is set for 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14. Tickets cost $15 for all seats, and can be purchased at the Craterian box office, 16 S. Bartlett St., online at www.craterian.org or by calling 541-779-3000.
"Menagerie" began as a screenplay called "The Gentleman Caller," written for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios. Williams rewrote it as a short, autobiographical story, "Portrait of a Girl in Glass." A second rewrite revealed a stage play that he titled "The Glass Menagerie." It was Williams' first successful play, premiering in 1944 in Chicago, then moving on to Broadway, where it won a New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1944. The huge success of Williams' "Streetcar" in 1947 earned the playwright a Pulitzer Prize for drama.
"'Streetcar Named Desire' is a re-exploration of 'Menagerie,'" Warner says. "The characters become very familiar to us ... the Southern belle, the restless, artistic son. That's what makes the dramas such American classics.
"As a playwright, Williams is not asking anyone to produce literal interpretations of his work," Warner says. "In all of the interviews I've read, he talks about his frustration with the way his early work was presented. He wanted ambient street noise and light projections. He was always talking about music and light."
Two ideas took hold when Warner and the cast began working on "Menagerie." Laura is cheered by her collection of small, glass sculptures and, in the opening monologue, Tom says, "In memory everything seems to happen to music. That explains the fiddle in the wings."
"We're taking the idea of the glass animals and using it as a metaphor for Brad Nelson's lighting design, using refracted light instead of glass sculptures," Warner says. "And instead of ambient street noise, we're using jazz guitarist Bil Leonhart to enhance the scenes.
"The cyclorama is different than past Next Stage shows. Usually they're lit to be intimate. The idea for this one is to open up the stage utilizing the theater's great light capabilities," he says. "But, again, we're not trying to make things too recognizable in this production. I've done theater for so long that I like to try riskier takes on plays, especially when it comes to collaborating and mixing things up with artists from other disciplines."
"The Glass Menagerie" is the first of four productions in Next Stage Repertory's 2013-2014 season at the Craterian. Look for "Old Time Traveling Radio Show" with Warner and Gwen Overland in January; playwright Donald Marguilies' "Collected Stories" in March; and a musical, "The Spitfire Grill," in May.