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Center Stage

Shadows on a seesaw

3/16/2016

Tennessee Williams finds strange ways to break your heart. Toward the end of “The Glass Menagerie,” his first masterwork, there is a crushing moment when the hapless Laura hands Jim, her “gentleman caller,” a strange parting gift of a broken toy. She calls it a “souvenir.”

“The Glass Menagerie.” Kum & Go Repertory Theater of Iowa. www.rtiowa.com. March 17-18, and March 24-26, 7:30 p.m.; March 20 and 27, 2 p.m.

“The Glass Menagerie.” Kum & Go Repertory Theater of Iowa. www.rtiowa.com.
March 17-18, and March 24-26, 7:30 p.m.; March 20 and 27, 2 p.m.

But a souvenir of what? Laura’s and Jim’s date has been a disaster.

The girl’s brother and mother had thought of Jim as husband material. Yet neither their St. Louis tenement nor Laura’s frail mind, weakened by her limp, has room for romance. When the girl and her “caller” try to dance, they break the toy, one of the fragile pieces of the collection that gives Williams his title.

Still, on opening night, when Katy Merriman brought out that word “souvenir,” she triggered gasps across the house. A couple minutes later, when Ben Sheridan, playing her brother, sobbed in farewell, others, too, were fighting tears. Their family has faded to no more than a shadow in the process demonstrating, once more, that Williams magic.

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The playwright also gets plenty of help from the players. Merriman, over her last gift, speaks with a child’s bluntness, protecting herself, and most of the time she works under guard. She works against her looks, remarkably, with her shoulders hunched and jaw thrust forward. When at last she softens in a glimmering moment of happiness, its sends a shiver.

As Jim, the newcomer, Taylor Diles gets the man’s decency. He deals with Laura’s desperate mother affably, but closemouthed, then grows expansive with the girl herself.  Just watching him sigh as he quits the house, you see the difference between him and brother Tom (Ben Sheridan) at his tightly wound best. He bares his teeth and sows his knuckles even in his scenes as “narrator,” when he provides context from outside Jay Jaglim’s auditorium-splitting set. Tom needs his strength for his own dreams, which tug him away from his addled sister.

Not that the give and take lacks for sass. Laughter erupts at every corner of the play’s four-way seesaw. Director Karla Kash keeps things in flow between the set’s raised dining area and, at the low end, its garbage cans, a reminder that the family’s fallen on hard times.

Such details help, but it’s the people in this “Menagerie” that make it a knockout, in particular Jami Bassman. As Laura’s and Tom’s mother, granted, she has the most flamboyant role, sometimes ferocious and other times hilarious. The richest irony may come when Mama declares: “I know all about the tyranny of women.”  Yet she’s pathetic as well, especially in costumer Emily Ganfield’s eye-popping cotillion gown, straight out of Old Dixie. This is the getup Mama chooses for welcoming Jim.

Overheard in the Lobby:  For St. Patrick’s Day weekend, the Celtic dance spectacular “Riverdance” returns to the Civic Center. CV

John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.

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