Theatre 3’s ‘Glass Menagerie’ rediscovers a classic; ‘Motown’ rocks out
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
When you see a “classic” of theater for the gazillionth time, which is probably a close estimate for me of my experiences with The Glass Menagerie, you kind of lose your ability to be excited, or discover something new. Is it really possible another production can reveal for you something you haven’t seen before? Of course, that’s no reason not to see it — this is probably someone else’s first time, and they haven’t become as jaded as you … yet.
Which is why two things began to astonish me watching Theatre 3’s season opener of Tennessee Williams’ famed memory play. First, I don’t recall laughing as much in prior versions of Menagerie as I did here. Maybe that’s because the humor is mostly front-loaded: By the time of the final fade-out, when the tragic romance between fragile, twitterpated Laura Wingfield (Alison Pistorius) and her gallantly pleasant gentleman caller Jim O’Connor (Sterling Gafford) sinks in, you’re usually too enervated to remember the laughs of the first half. But this time is different; this time, the overbearing mom Amanda (Connie Coit) lingers — not just as a nosy harridan, but as a quick-witted ageing belle at her wit’s end. The moment when she walks out at the top of Act 2 in an ornately inappropriate gown, looking like a cross between Baby Jane and Miss Haversham, is the last great guffaw before tenderness takes its place, and then itself falls to Williams’ cynicism.
And that’s the point at which I made the second great discovery of this production: As I have gotten older, I find myself siding more and more with Amanda. Oh, sure, she’s the stereotype of the meddling mother — the kind who, pop psychologists will tell us, turned her beleaguered son Tom (Blair Baker) gay from excessive maternal smothering. (Hey, he’s going somewhere when he says he’s headed for the movies … and we know he doesn’t wanna tell mama.) While Amanda has, in the past, always entertained me in an “at least she’s not my mom” manner, this time I feel Laura and Tom would do well to shut up and take her advice for a change. There’s a frustration factor, not unlike the one between Felix and Oscar in The Odd Couple, that was there all along, but unseen because Williams’ sympathies clearly lie with his surrogate, Tom. And Tom is really the worst of the bunch. Sure, by the end he’s self-flagellating and superficially remorseful, but never truly apologetic. That would entail thinking of someone other than himself.
The indulgent artiste is the most banal of literary devises (Tom is the weak spot in the show, almost always), but even if it weren’t, Coit, Gafford and Pistorius take turns stealing the limelight. Laura is the most repetitive of the characters, whose debilitating shyness keeps her remote and isolated from us, but Pistorius scaredy-cat performance tugs at our pathos. Gafford, who was impressive earlier this summer as the likeable lug in Uptown Players’ The Nance, is equally adept at projecting Jim’s well-intentioned by reckless affability.
Coit, though, grabs the lion’s share of our attention. Her genteel Southern lady living in lower-class squalor is amusing yet frightened. The real tragedy of the Wingfields isn’t having an unmarriageable daughter; it’s knowing that the future for yourself, however short, is bleak. It’s a metaphor for ageing itself. Maybe that’s why I finally get Amanda. It’s a terrible thing to know better, and not have anyone take you seriously.
You’re not meant to take Motown The Musical, which has another week in its run at the Winspear, all that seriously. This is a book musical in only the sketchiest sense: There is a plot, and characters and a point of some degree, I suppose. But it’s really just a framework around which to hang the soundtrack of the modern rock era — the music of Detroit.
It’s too bad that the full story of the birth of Berry Gordy’s (Josh Tower) record label, which transformed the sound of the ’60s by bringing “race music” to the masses, is given short shrift. Sometimes it feels like every other Broadway show is a jukebox musical about the craft of writing the perfect three-minute pop song (Jersey Boys and Beautiful, to name just two). But aside from being an impresario and apparently bilking his artists out of millions (an allegation that gets clouded over in a fog of R&B music), we don’t really come to know Berry Gordy. The thrust of the plot is whether he’ll show up for a 25th anniversary TV special held in his honor. You’ve achieved some rarefied ether if your greatest worry is whether to accept tributes from an adoring public.
But — and I can’t stress this enough — who the hell cares?!?! No one, least of all the Gordy family, is coming to see Motown for the insights into character. We come for the singing, for the dancing, for the music. Jersey Boys takes a good 45 minutes and 15 songs before it stumbled into the Four Seasons’ actual hits; Motown takes less than 45 seconds. It launches into the score with such vigor and energy, it’s more cover-band concert than Broadway musical. When Allison Semmers takes to the stage as Diana Ross, you feel like you’re seeing the real deal. It’s a lovely fake-out of faux Supremes, Jackson 5s, Stevie Wonders and Marvin Gayes. The fun is infectious.
I didn’t expect to be able to recommend anyone see Jerry Springer: The Opera up at the weirdest suburban theater company in America, Grapevine’s OhLook. It’s a late-night show (curtain is at 11 p.m.) in a cramped space sandwiched in a strip mall; audience members enjoy drinking in their seats and hooting along with the raucous show, based (obviously) on the salacious talk show. It’s Rocky Horror with few costumes and no throwing of toast.
So far. The show has been a hit, so they extended it one more weekend. If you can shoehorn yourself into a seat, or even a pillow on the skirt of the stage, I encourage you to do so, because who knows when you will get a chance to see this hilarious but surprisingly operatic musical again? It’s a vulgar and profane examination of celebrity culture and the coarsening of society told with wit and anger with a guerrilla-theater sensibility. How often can you say that about opera?
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 7, 2015.