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Strong performances, direction make “Menagerie” worth looking into

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Maybe it was easy. After all, the work of Tennessee Williams is compelling, and “The Glass Menagerie” is a beautiful play. But regardless of how easy or difficult it is to bring Williams’s classic to life, the creative team at Kansas University Theatre pulled it off brilliantly.

The story concerns the Wingfield family — mother Amanda (Gail Trottier), daughter Laura (Jaquelyn Koester) and son Tom (Matt Crooks). Tom serves as a narrator and character in the story and is a semi-autobiographical version of Williams. Set in 1937 St. Louis, the play follows the family’s struggle to stay afloat in the waning days of the Depression. Tom works at a warehouse but dreams of adventure. Laura is crippled and “painfully shy.” No man has ever shown interest in her, and Amanda fears she will become a spinster. Amanda had many men when she was young, but chose poorly — her husband left her and the children, although his picture still dominates the family sitting room.

Amanda begs Tom to find Laura a suitor, and he does — a man he knows at work, who just happens to be the only guy Laura ever wanted, a memory from high school come to life. But when this Gentleman Caller (Ben Sullivan) does come to dinner, the results are both wondrous and disastrous.

Trottier, a costume shop cutter/draper with University Theatre makes her onstage debut at KU with a tour de force performance as the overbearing, over-worrying Amanda. Trottier dives into the role with abandon, bringing perfectly to life the meddling mother who means well but only makes her children’s lives harder. Crooks is good as the frustrated, would-be writer. He brings the quiet desperation of Tom out subtly, not overdoing it. We feel the character’s pain without drowning in it.

Likewise, Sullivan is perfect as the glad-handing Gentleman Caller. He projects the façade of having it all worked out, when, really, he’s just as lonely as Tom and Laura.

Koester’s performance is outstanding. She’s mastered the trick of acting without having lines. She is compelling to watch when the other characters are talking about her. It’s obvious she hears them, reacts to what they say without responding verbally. She uses body language to give us the shy, frightened cripple who doesn’t dare to dream the popular boy from school could be interested in her. And when she does accept the Gentleman Caller’s advances only to have her hopes dashed, Koester says everything with her face and body that Williams doesn’t give her lines to say.

Jack Wright’s direction finds the humor in the script. There are a number of laugh-out-loud moments Wright skillfully draws out to break the tension of the misery of these three people who dream of something better for themselves. His tutelage of the actors pays off in the strong performances of each. His eye for detail creates nice uses of light and music to enhance the special moments the script provides.

It may have been easy to create such magic given the beauty of Williams’s words. But great theatre is a combination of a strong script and stronger performances. Wright and the cast of “The Glass Menagerie” give us both.

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