Mixed Reviews 

Two stage classics currently in local theaters offer study in contrasts

Two stage classics currently in local theaters offer study in contrasts

The Glass Menagerie

Presented by Mockingbird Theatre

Through Feb. 16 at TPAC’s War Memorial Auditorium

Guys & Dolls

Presented by Boiler Room Theatre

Through March 1 at The Factory at Franklin

As a part of the ongoing local celebration of Tennessee Williams, Mockingbird Theatre is currently mounting The Glass Menagerie, the poetic slice of life that made the playwright a household name almost 60 years ago. Menagerie’s pathos-laden portrait of the Wingfields of St. Louis captures realistic family dynamics, the struggles of poverty and the barely flickering hopes of old-line Southern gentility. The play’s ground-breaking use of imagery and symbolism is still deeply affecting, and it’s a gem for actors, with its four sharply drawn characters running the gamut of emotions.

That said, it might be argued that Williams’ excess, which affords the play all its beauty, is also the play’s biggest liability. Sometimes Menagerie is overly talky. Maybe this is the price we must pay to experience such vivid lives, and, ultimately, Williams wins us over. Still, there are patches where the master might have tightened up his scenes, which could have resulted in a smoother arc to the drama. In any case, that’s the impression left by the Mockingbird production, which, though painstakingly directed by René Copeland, threatens to oppress with a touch of ennui.

Amanda Wingfield—an older middle-aged lady who fits nicely into the Williams canon of disappointed, time-ravaged Southern belles—lives with her son, Tom, and daughter, Laura, in a somewhat seedy apartment. Tom supports the clan working at a warehouse, but he has writerly aspirations and feelings of wanderlust. Laura is a not-unpretty young woman, hobbled by a gimpy leg and otherwise fraught with pathological difficulties in facing the world. The household suffers general tensions, but things brighten when Tom announces that he’s bringing home to dinner a co-worker, whom Amanda immediately targets as a possible suitor for Laura. The evening starts off as initially planned, but ends not as anyone exactly hoped.

The story is told as one big flashback by Tom, who has long since fled the family roost. David Alford handles this role with assurance, as well he might, since he first tackled it in 1994 in a seminal Mockingbird production. Erin Whited—also re-creating a role she played opposite Alford nine years earlier—is generally good as Laura, though she’s at her best in a famous Act 2 scene with Paul Michael Valley, who shines as The Gentleman Caller. The latter role is really one of the greatest in American drama. If it’s at all underrated, Valley shows why it shouldn’t be; his portrait of the high school hero who turns out to be quite an ordinary fellow is greatly affecting in its poignant simplicity. Finally, Cinda McCain is Amanda. In the early going, her performance seems tentative, but she eventually finds herself and by evening’s end achieves much. Amanda is without question the play’s most complex character. Oversimplified interpretations see her as an embittered woman and a nagging parent. She’s both to some degree, yet McCain also manages to convey Amanda’s genuine (if misdirected) concern for her children, her plucky instincts and the humorous side of being an old-fashioned “Christian” woman.

G. Warren Stiles’ functional, thrust-stage set is distinguished by an elongated, center-hanging piece of drapery, onto which are projected various pictures and play excerpts. It looks arty, but loses its intended effect early on and even becomes a tad distracting. Musician Paul Carrol Binkley sits in the shadows upstage-right throughout the evening, strumming atmospherically on his guitar, offering snippets of old tunes like “What’ll I Do?” His presence provides some nice moments when words and music combine euphonically; other times, it sounds extraneous.

All the pieces are in place for this Menagerie to be first-rate in every way. Yet despite all the obvious talent involved, it’s missing a consistently engaging pulse, and the four performances never completely coalesce into an artistic whole. Copeland has directorial vision, but in the end her guidance feels more ponderous than firm, leaving the production devoid of a galvanizing spark—and, in turn, revealing the underlying weaknesses in Williams’ own script.

The reverse might be said about Boiler Room Theatre’s Guys & Dolls; undoubtedly flawed, it’s infused with likable spirit and gets better as it progresses. Based on stories by Damon Runyon, Frank Loesser’s “musical fable of Broadway” dates from 1950, yet remains vibrant and utterly delightful.

Pulling off big musicals in a relatively small theater is always the challenge at BRT, and this production is no exception. The sets are scaled down, the dancing suffers because space is compressed, and there are obvious budgetary limitations as well, most evident in the musicians and the costumes. But the company’s greatest assets are director Jamey Green and a repertory-like coterie of musical-comedy diehards, who come through with flying colors.

The lead females, Megan Murphy and Lauri Bright, are talented and appealing, especially Bright, who was apparently born to play Miss Adelaide, the long-suffering cabaret dancer who’s been waiting 14 years for gambler boyfriend Nathan Detroit (Daron Bruce) to marry her. The poised and professional Bright delivers her material with sexy charm and wit—and she’s got great gams to boot. Murphy, as Salvation Army goody-two-shoes Sarah Brown, sings the show’s rich ballads (among them “I’ve Never Been in Love Before”) with commitment and warmth, usually in tandem with Lewis Kempfer, who plays bad-boy roué Sky Masterson.

The supporting players are terrific. Scott Rice and Sloan Yarborough nail the fabulous title song, and Rice leads the ensemble in a thrilling version of “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.” In addition, John Warren croons an exemplary rendition of the bittersweet, oft-overlooked “More I Cannot Wish You.” Erin Parker, who serves as one of the leggy dancing girls, also deserves a lot of credit for supervising the costume design on limited capital: Her work is generally colorful and, particularly as regards Bright, exceedingly stylish and well-tapered.

Now the downside: The choreography by supporting actor J. Dietz Osborne is perfunctory and needs tightening; the musical arrangements are disappointingly spare; and Bruce and Kempfer, while competent in their roles, lack charisma. This is particularly true of Kempfer, who sings well enough but simply doesn’t possess the edgy masculinity one expects in his role. Happily, though, there’s still plenty to recommend this production.

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