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Playing Out the Past : Casting actors as young and old Tom in 'The Glass Menagerie' provides different perspectives.

August 12, 1994|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; T.H. McCulloh writes regularly about theater for The Times

TOPANGA — Having two actors play the same role is not a new idea. There have been productions of "Hamlet" with two Dark Princes. There have even been productions of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" with one actor playing the older Tom Wingfield, who narrates the play, and a younger Tom living out the older man's memories.

But it's always a fascinating idea, and director Heidi Helen Davis is making full use of the concept in the production of "Menagerie" opening this weekend at The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum.

Williams and "Menagerie" have a long history with the Theatricum. In 1975, "Menagerie" was the first non-Shakespearean play--and, through a special arrangement with the playwright, the first Williams play--the theater staged. Since then they have done "Night of the Iguana," "The Two-Character Play" and "Suddenly Last Summer." Last season, director Davis staged a highly acclaimed "A Streetcar Named Desire" in the theater's forest glen amphitheater.

Although most of Williams' plays are drawn from his own experience, "Glass Menagerie" is the most forthrightly autobiographical. The bitter, obsessive mother, Amanda, was closely patterned after Williams' own mother. The daughter, Laura, was a sad, lyrical image of the playwright's sister Rose, and of course son Tom was Williams. He even used his own real first name.

To use a much-abused phrase, the Wingfield (Williams) family was more than dysfunctional. Amanda was the Southern belle whose naive dreams were shattered by a marriage to that other Southern stereotype, the loser-wastrel. She took it out on her poetic son, and most tragically on the daughter who was a carbon copy of her mother.

"All that Williams writes about in most of his plays," says director Davis, "comes out of the basic dysfunction that he experienced, and that a lot of us experience. The other night, one of the actors said that Amanda doesn't seem like such a bad person. How could she have produced such emotionally crippled children? And yet in every single scene in the play, there's an incident with Tom or with Laura where great emotion needs to be expressed. And Amanda stops it. She either stomps on it, denies it or belittles the person for having it. And by the time you're 20, of course, you've been stuffing it all those years."

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Davis, who studied at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre, was familiar with Williams' work but had not worked on his material herself until the Theatricum's artistic director, Ellen Geer, suggested she direct "Streetcar." As a director, Davis had for some time been delving into personal research on family systems and dysfunctional psychology.

Davis says she doesn't want to hit the audience over the head with it, because Williams' writing is so subtle. But she wants the audience to see that they can look at Amanda and see what happens when we do this to children.

"We've all had this done to us on some level," Davis says. "I see my mother in Amanda. There's a part of many women in her, maybe the majority of women, bits and pieces. The controlling, the punitiveness, the denying. Women are very much like men. They're just taught to express things differently. I don't think one is any more worse off, or subject to evil, than the other. And Laura embodies what Amanda demands. She has enabled her mother to have somebody to completely control, to blame for her lousy life."

But it was son Tom who was able to fight his mother, able to break free. Having two actors play the role is an idea Williams would probably have liked. The younger Tom, played by Brian Morri, is living through the hell created by his mother, and the father who abandoned them.

Morri says, "I can sit back and watch the older Tom's big monologues, and to see his perception of where 'we' are after 20 years. I get to see the end result through someone else's eyes. My resources are built up. We watch each other very closely. He's looking back on a situation, a very painful one, and to him it's not all black and white. It's not that simple. And I was just part of that. Hopefully I'm able to reverse time, and reverse his insights and show a different side of that coin."

James Lefebvre, who plays the older Tom, agrees. "That's the most striking thing," he says, "being able to look at who I am at an earlier point. I'm not as involved in that earlier moment, when all I saw was how I was being thwarted, my life being smothered by this woman. In retrospect I have a completely different take on it."

Ellen Geer plays Amanda. Geer says Williams "understands the dark side of human nature. Especially in today's world, I find that people need to have a catharsis because we're so covered up. It's fascinating for people."

WHERE AND WHEN

What: "The Glass Menagerie."

Location: Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga.

Hours: 8 p.m. Saturdays through Sept. 17. Also Saturday matinees at 3 p.m. Aug. 20 and 27, and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. Aug. 28 through Sept. 18. Ends Sept. 18.

Price: $12.

Call: (310) 455-3723.

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