The Yellowstone Repertory Theatre took an old warhorse of a play out for another lap Friday night and finished with a win, place and show.
The win was for the lead performance in “The Glass Menagerie” by Dina Brophy as Amanda Wingfield, the long-suffering and sometimes insufferable single mother plotting the best for two damaged children. Place went to the rest of the small but fine cast, Chas Llewellyn as son Tom, Caitlin Hart as daughter Laura and Daniel Nickerson as Jim O’Conner, the long-awaited “gentleman caller.”
Show went to the exceptional set design by Rob Gunderson and set decoration by Katie Rehberg, who were called on stage to take a bow after the show by director Craig Huisenga. Then Gunderson took a literal bow, dropping to one knee to propose onstage to Rehberg, who accepted the ring he offered.
It was the last in an evening of crowd-pleasing scenes in a play that was the first big success for Tennessee Williams when it made its debut in New York in 1945. The lacerating themes that dominated his work appear in scenes that appear painfully autobiographical: a sense of loss, of missed opportunity, of emotions that are both overwrought and somehow buried under a veneer of casual cruelty.
Although I had not seen the play in many years – and had never seen it live – I admit to feeling a bit of a lump in my gut as the play opened, as if I had swallowed a hard-boiled egg. Did I really want to spend another two hours with this family?
Fortunately, this production makes the lump go down easily, starting with Gunderson’s set design, one of the best I’ve seen in local theater. A single step divides the set into a dining room and living room. Fake windows hang in each room, and a clothesline strung with old clothes frames the entire set. The décor evokes the time and place: the 1930s in a rundown apartment in St. Louis, with world war beckoning like the occasional thunder that claps off stage.
Stage front is the inevitable set of glass animals that serve as the material counterpart to Laura’s fragile soul. Space around the edges suggests a fire escape and gives Tom space to provide the narration that bookends the play.
“I am the opposite of a stage magician,” he says in his opening narration. “He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”
While the aspiring poet Tom, subtly played by Llewellyn, is the play’s voice, Amanda is its soul. What’s in her heart is never more than an inch away from her mouth, and Brophy walks a very high and thin wire to play her. She is ridiculous without being pathetic, funny without turning to caricature, damaged but not destroyed.
“Life isn’t easy,” she admonishes Tom. “It calls for Spartan endurance.”
Brophy, who with Hart and Huisenga founded the Repertory Theatre, plays the part with just a hint of a Southern accent and oodles of Southern charm. She would do anything to help her children succeed and is utterly blind to all she does to block their success. She also is lost in her past, keeping a large, grinning photo above the fireplace of the husband who abandoned her.
“Gone, gone, gone,” she says. “All vestige of gracious living gone.”
Hart plays Laura with perhaps a touch too much diffidence, although it is hard to overstate just how crippled, in every sense of the word, this character is. She limps from Victrola to menagerie, from menagerie to Victrola, as easily broken as her glass animals. Only the appearance of her gentleman caller, played by Nickerson as the “nice, ordinary, young man” called for in the script, draws her out, and then only for a doomed moment.
As Tom exits, and ends, the play, Laura lies on the sofa where her mother comforts her, darkly and silently affirming the endurance of even the most troubled families.
“Oh, Laura, Laura,” Tom says to a sister who can no longer hear him, “I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!”
Those who sat through the Yellowstone Repertory Theatre’s production may find it hard to leave this play behind. Huisenga and his co-founders promised to bring professional theater to Billings, and they are delivering on that promise in a big way.
The Black Box Theater at the NOVA Center for the Performing Arts, 2317 Montana Ave., appeared to be sold out Friday night, or close to it, but Huisenga said plenty of tickets remain for the rest of the run.
Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 10, and at 2 p.m. March 11. Final performances are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 16-17. Tickets, at $22 for adults and $15 for students, are available at www.YellowstoneRep.org or by calling 1-800-838-3006.
The Yellowstone Repertory Theatre concludes its first season with Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Crimes of the Heart,” which opens June 8.