Poetry and heartbreak at the Rose

Friday, December 5, 2003

The poetry of Tennessee Williams' dialogue and characterizations that capture the fury and tenderness in family relationships make for an evening of beauty and heartache at the Rose Theatre. The University Theatre production of "The Glass Menagerie" opens tonight.

Set in pre-World War II St. Louis, the heavily symbolic play rings familiarly with references to Soldan High School and the Jewel Box, the Forest Park conservatory that houses tropical flowers. "The Glass Menagerie" is a memory told by Tom (Nick Cutelli) about his mother, Amanda Wingfield (Dr. Roseanna Whitlow) and his sister, Laura (Casee Hagan).

Tom also appears as a young man whose artistic spirit and dreams are being crushed by the warehouse job he must keep to support the family. His memories are both softened and enhanced by his distance from them. "Time is the longest distance between two places," he says.

Amanda's life is informed by bitterness toward the husband who left them, "a man who worked for the telephone company and fell in love with long-distance," she says. She revels in her own memories of Southern gentility and the beaus and might have chosen, and worries for her own future.

A mother as loving and cruel as Amanda Wingfield is a difficult creature to put in the cage of the stage, but Whitlow captures her whole, charming one second and monstrous the next. Whitlow, who played Laura in a "Glass Menagerie" production at Southeast 32 years ago, is remarkable.

Cutelli, blooming as an actor, beautifully handles the comic, scathing diatribe Tom directs toward his mother.

Hagan's Laura is agonizingly timid, a delicate flower whose loveliness a friend is finally noticed by Tom's friend, Jim (Stephen Fister). Fister's Jim is pleasantly earnest and dangerous around someone like Laura.

The play takes place both in the Wingfield dining room at the back of the stage and their living room in the foreground. Dennis C. Seyer's set increases the distance from the audience, disconcerting at first but ultimately enhancing the feeling that we are experiencing a memory.

Another effect that works well is the play's use of period music to set the mood and tinkling music box sound to evoke the feeling that the stage is a time capsule under glass. Philip Nacy's sound design and Seyer's lighting underscore this effect.

The play is directed by Dr. Kenn Stilson, who understands how, as Tom proposes in the beginning, to provide the truth in the form of illusion. Sarah Moore's costumes reflect the stylishness of the era the play is set in. Student Meagan Edmonds is the assistant director.

One warning: One of the character's cigarette smoking is built into the dialogue of the play.


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