STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: The Stage of Baltimore

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: The Stage of Baltimore The Glass Menagerie in Baltimore
Really, said my b.g. (beloved girlfriend) Linda, you're going to 'The Glass Menagerie' again? You saw it in London a year ago, in New Jersey last fall, and in plenty of productions before those. And now you'll be seeing it once again Baltimore?

The Glass Menagerie in Baltimore
Really, said my b.g. (beloved girlfriend) Linda, you're going to 'The Glass Menagerie' again? You saw it in London a year ago, in New Jersey last fall, and in plenty of productions before those. And now you'll be seeing it once again Baltimore?

Well, yes. But it's not as if I were traveling to Baltimore just to see The Glass Menagerie. I was going to visit friends who are so dear that they've become family. And, yes, I did wish that Center Stage was doing something I hadn't seen -- such as that musical version of Marivaux's The Triumph of Love that may yet come to New York.

But a visit to Center Stage is always a must when I'm in the 410 area code. I've been going there for more than 30 years, when it was in the 301 area code, some blocks north on North Avenue, in an architecturally insignificant building that eventually succumbed to fire.

But some hot memories remain. Beatrice Winde, now on Broadway as the retired housekeeper in The Young Man from Atlanta, was a stunning Berenice in The Member of the Wedding in 1967. A year later, 15 terrific one-acters collected under the title, Et Cetera '68. Within a 10 month span, I discovered Nicolas Coster as Tony Cavendish in The Royal Family (on April 16, 1968, the night that Edna Ferber, the play's co-author, died), Lenny Baker in The Journey of the Fifth Horse, and Laura Esterman as Jessica in The Merchant of Venice. But maybe best of all was a musical by Barbara Damashek and Larry Arrick, best known from Quilters, called Two Saints, an adaptation of two Issac Bashevis Singer stories that starred C. David Colson -- the white boy of Purlie -- in a charming and, to me, unforgettable performance.

By 1975, Center Stage had resurfaced in a reborn architecturally significant building on North Calvert Street, where it now resides. My first trip there resulted in a nifty Tartuffe with a delightful actress named Christine Baranski playing Dorine and an equally fetching one named Trish Hawkins as Mariane. Those are just some of the reason why I head to Center Stage, even if the play is Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. But the plain truth is that I've adored the play since 1964. For after three years of savoring a theatrical diet that had solely consisted of musicals, I took in my first serious play to see what they were like. The Glass Menagerie has kept me going ever since.

That production, at Boston's Charles Playhouse, had as its Amanda Betty Field, Elmer Rice's Dream Girl both on-stage and off. I thought she was brilliant, even when I later learned that she'd been panned by every Boston critic for overdoing it. To a Glass Menagerie virgin, she was perfection.

Besides, it was the scene in which The Gentleman Caller bumps Laura into the table and breaks her unicorn that shattered me and sold me on serious theater forever. Even today, I could take you back to the Charles and point out the seat in which I was sitting -- until that crash, that is. For that's when I jumped in my seat in disappointment and horror.

Now I know that scene doesn't always work. In the 1983 Broadway revival, when John Heard was dancing with Amanda Plummer, it seemed to me that his body English was screeching out, Amanda, get over here, come on now, we've got to get over to the table to knock over that unicorn, come on, let's go, move a little to the right now, okay, all right,will you bump into it now, good! Not much magic there.

Nevertheless, on Easter Sunday, I'd leave my friends-who'd-become family and see a 2 PM matinee of The Glass Menagerie. Except that I was having such a good time with them that I hated to leave. Well, I rationalized, maybe on Easter, the play will start a little late. Even if it doesn't, well, I certainly know the script, and I'll just sneak into the back row.

Easier said than done. When I arrived at the theater's second space -- named the Head Theater -- an usherette handed me my press kit, then firmly but not cruelly told me I would not be admitted until that proverbial suitable break in the action. But, she said, you can watch the show on the monitor. With one hand, she pointed to a Toshiba, and with the other, to a cafe table.

Okay, I has nuns in Catholic schools for 12 years, so I know how to follow orders. But the Toshiba's sound, at the mercy of a wide-open space and no mikes, was awfully crackly, and too treble to boot. It showed the work of a single immobile camera, on the balcony level, focused on the action far below. At the moment, both Amanda and Laura seemed to be three inches tall. You wouldn't have recognized them even they were your own children.

In a way, the actress playing Amanda was. If I may bring yet another regional theater into the mix, I've been a Pamela Payton-Wright fan since I first discovered her in Providence at what was then known as Trinity Square Repertory Company. (The troupe has since dropped the Square). That was the same year I discovered Center Stage, 1967, when Payton-Wright was a delicious Muriel in Ah, Wilderness! This was, mind you, a full three years before she made her mark Off-Broadway as Sada Thompson's daughter in The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in the-Moon Marigolds. Now she was all grown up, and playing one of the 20th century theater's greatest roles. (And, I'd eventually learn, would do it wonderfully.)

Still, a Toshiba ain't the same as live theater, so I decided to wait until I got inside to really watch the play. In the interim, I'd pass the time thinking of that excellent production of Dealer's Choice I'd seen the night before at the Manhattan Theatre Club. The first act showed guys setting up for a poker, while the second was on-stage poker game. Each act was as intriguing and engaging as the other.

I also started thinking that maybe Broadway could have its own set of playing cards. For diamonds, each of the 12 cards could have picture of various actresses who've played Evita (She is a diamond. Get it?). Patti LuPone would be the ace, and we'd go all the way down to that inept actress I saw play it in a midwestern road show. For the deck's 12 clubs, we could have all the clubs featured in Broadway musicals: Chez Joey, The Village Vortex, the Casacabana --

But all these thoughts abruptly stopped because Payton-Wright and Katie MacNichol (who played the neurotic wife in The Food Chain) had grabbed my attention. Here was a no-nonsense Amanda not interested in psychologically punishing her daughter for having dropped out of school. She was just letting it all out raw. And here was a Laura who was defending herself. Yes, she was a shy kid outside, but at home, she felt safe. Not even electronic component could stop the on-stage electricity from coming through.

Finally, during Amanda's first magazine-selling phone call, the usherette let me in. That got me seated just in time to witness Amanda's discussion with Tom on what to do about Laura. I was pleased to see who was playing Tom: Robert Sean Leonard, who's been in such movies as The Age of Innocence, Swing Kids, Much Ado about Nothing, and Dead Poets' Society.

In other words, Leonard is an actor who could land a movie if he wanted one, and yet here he was in Baltimore, and at the second-stage yet. Your paycheck last week was probably bigger than his.

Leonard, then, is one of our better actors because he always comes back to the stage. There was Below the Belt off-Broadway, Edgar in King Lear at the Old Globe in San Diego, Edmund in Long Day's Journey into Night at the Huntington in Boston, a lead in a Marivaux adaptation at the McCarter -- God love him! How nice he was to fit in this Glass Menagerie after wrapping the Christopher Reeve movie, In the Gloaming, which debuts this month on HBO.

He wasn't resting on his laurels. There he was, really roaring when Amanda chided him about his posture. Maybe his Southern accent wasn't as detailed as the others, but he was really telling his mother off. Yes, this looked as if this could be a special production.

Because here was an Amanda who sat up on the table from time to time, and even made herself comfortable on the edge of the fire escape. Somehow you saw the vestiges of why she once seemed strong and proud to 17 gentleman callers one long-ago Sunday afternoon. And when she insisted that Tom Rise and shine the next morning, she infused it with world-weary exhaustion, not the forced perkiness you always hear. Not until she was preparing for Jim O'Connor's arrival did she start going a mile-a-minute in a 55 mph zone.

Are you getting the picture, despite having neither Toshiba nor orchestra seat? Director Tim Vasen's production made these three people into a real family. In the process, he made a potential dusty classic into an exciting new play. He wasn't the least bit concerned with the usual poetic lyricism. He wanted his production to sparkle as much as the mirrored ball that came in to represent the Paradise Ballroom.

So Vasen dropped the supertitles that Williams wrote into the play. For example, when Laura realizes the identity of her Gentleman Caller, we're supposed to see projected on the back wall Not Jim! Does that make you to wonder if Tennessee Williams had as much a thing for silent movies as Tom had for the talkies? Vasen solved the potentially melodramatic problem by letting the dialogue speak for itself.

And what wonders he did with MacNichol's Laura! They didn't make the young woman into a non-stop victim. How much more interesting to see a formally dressed Laura go to the mirror, and have a reaction akin to Louise's in Gypsy -- I'm a pretty girl, mama. How fascinating to see a Laura who believes she may have a glimmer of a chance with this guy, instead of observing a doleful loser who's sure the whole night is going to be a bust.

Okay, but no matter how wonderfully a Glass Menagerie is proceeding, you can never be sure that it's going to pack the requisite wallop. Because we still have that one last hurdle, that late arrival with the Gentleman Caller. And what if he stinks?

Not to worry. First off, Jon Brent Curry has the Robert Redford looks of a quarter-century ago, when he was the idiom for irresistible handsomeness. But far more, important, of course, he played the former high-school hot shot not as a failed warehouse worker, but a man already on the rebound. Here was a guy who'd admit he didn't score in the early innings of his life, but he knows he's got quite a few at-bats left. Never have I seen a Gentleman Caller who was so convincing in dispensing hope.

But here's the thing -- Vasen had Laura kinda-sorta believe him! Which, when you think of it, makes sense. Jim has, after all, had the music that's made Laura dance ever since they were in high school. Why shouldn't she think that her Superman still has all the answers?

So when Jim bumped Laura into the table, maybe he broke the unicorn, but he sure didn't break Laura's spirit. She was disappointed and hurt, of course, but you could see her eyes tell him that it didn't matter all the much, because she'd come out ahead tonight. She now thought that he could find something in her, just as her mother had been saying all along.

And here's the ace trump. Even near the end of the play, when Jim told her he was engaged to someone else, Laura still didn't crumble! That didn't happen until she saw Amanda's reaction, the subsequent fight with Tom, and his leaving for good. So it's not as if Vasen imposed a happy ending on the piece. We still got to tragedy in this Glass Menagerie. We just arrived there by a different route.

Oh, one last observation on the glass menagerie itself. It consisted of -- get this -- a mere THREE crystal animals on the table. Even that made sense, for Laura, a woman of limited resources, obviously can't buy very many. Her making a menagerie of the few she had made her all the more pathetic. You know something? I'm really sorry Linda missed it.

--Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star-Ledger.