The reputation of Tennessee Williams
as a playwright is firmly anchored in his creation of fiery, desperate characters that are forced to survive by destroying any opposition in a spiritual war of attrition. The Glass Menagerie
stands in stark contrast to the more explosive and celebrated works that would follow soon after it. In these latter pieces survival is insured by the infliction of pain through brute physicality or the perpetuation of a lie. In this case the semi-autobiographical tale centers on the unintentional infliction of pain caused by abandonment and innate human fragility. The essence of the script must be rendered with an appropriate amount of delicacy and desperation in order to mount an effective production. The University of Texas-El Paso
Department of Theatre and Dance has managed to find the right balance with their presentation of The Glass Menagerie
under the direction of Carlos Saldana
. Despite some minor hiccups, the show presents a heartbreakingly tender portrayal of the American classic.
Abraham H. Jallad’s performance as Tom Wingfield is further evidence that the talented Mr. Jallad is already a serious performer whose continued growth will surely make him one of the more engaging actors in the local community. Jallad plays Tom with a torturous conviction, flashing the fire within him that will inevitably force our narrator/protagonist into an unalterable course of action. Unfortunately, in his first appearance, in which Tom literally sets the stage as narrator, Jallad seems a bit detached, as if reaching for a quality rather than reaching out to the audience. As a result of this, a clear differentiation between the two realities of Tom, the present and the past, is never clearly made. The storyteller himself reveals this play to be a “dream.” It is within this “dream” that Tom is portrayed as a fully dynamic character full of resentment, frustration, tenderness, and hope. Deftly demonstrating a biting wit, a sardonic sense of humor, and a vagabond nature like his father. Yet in the audience directed passages we rarely see the results of the narrated past on this narrator of the present. Only in the final moments of the play do we see a multifaceted narrator, one who has been altered by experience, time, and regret, which is unfortunate, because when Mr. Jallad reveals this side it is an incredibly powerful moment. It makes one wish this elder Tom had been exposed the entire show, a victim of his own past that must now replay for us an act of atonement.
Tasked with the daunting challenge of playing the first in a long line of Tennessee’s powerful female characters is Ilene Steele in the role of family matriarch Amanda Wingfield. Ms. Steele seems a bit overwhelmed by the role at times. The bombastic nature of Amanda is often missed as it appears that she struggles with the language, especially in the long passages of past reflection on former glories. It is vital to remember that Amanda is being filtered through the memory of Tom, and thus she is the cause of the show’s initial stasis as well as the source of all ensuing conflict. Amanda’s larger than life persona and obsessive oppression of her children stems from the fact that she is an extremely desperate woman, who has been abandoned by her husband (or more likely driving him away), and forever pontificating about the past being riddled with “everlasting regret.” Perhaps no moments showcase this façade of false vivacity clearer than the moments the playwright gives her onstage alone. While making desperate phone calls in order to secure subscription renewals, Amanda resorts to false sincerity and generic catchphrases in an effort to imitate meaningful human contact. It is her inability to make these necessary connections with her own children that justifies Tom’s flight and Laura’s introverted behavior. Despite these struggles, Ms. Steele proves herself to be more than serviceable in the role as she finds genuine moments of interaction with her cast-mates, especially at the end of Act One. When the joyous news of a gentleman caller arrives, she shows just enough vulnerability to justify her boorish behavior. Ms. Steele also does a nice job in Act Two of demonstrating the nervousness that would come with such a woman when her chance at salvation arrives in the form of Jim O’Connor.
Having played chorus roles in the past, Avery Segapeli stakes her claim as a burgeoning young talent worth following with her performance as Laura Wingfield. While showing some rawness through a few projection problems and an onstage tumble during a scene change, it is undeniable that her performance demonstrates an innate understanding of acting
and the human condition as a whole. Appropriately invisible while the tumultuous relationship between Tom and Amanda plays out around her, Segapeli proves herself a performer capable of powerful honesty when the tempest subsides. The delicate moments of softness and camaraderie displayed between her and Jallad prove to be some of the show's most poignant moments. It is this quality in her performance that qualifies the regret that both Jim and Tom must feel for having to leave her. This incredible fragility is on full display during her scene with the gentleman caller and carries over to the final image of the show. After having made herself truly vulnerable for the first time and having her heart broken as a result, Ms. Segapeli, unlike many performers to recently grace the Wise Family Theatre Stage, chooses to fight against presentational phoniness. She prefers rather to perform Laura with the utmost dignity to the bitterest of ends, allowing Tom, and thus the audience, to identify with her and bear her suffering.
The unenviable task of breaking Laura’s heart falls on the shoulders of Jim O’Connor who is charmingly portrayed by Joe Paladino. Jim is endearingly sweet and virtuous enough to see all the loveliness in Laura for the first time in her life. Paladino proves he is capable of attaining these qualities while also showing a great sense of comedic timing. His Jim is a clean, decisive man who boldly commits to every decision and confidently flows into every moment, until he realizes the fragility of Laura and the damage that he has done. Through the extremely personal direction of Saldana, Paladino is able to mine these moments of heartbreak and forgiveness and display an undeniable charm that makes it impossible to dislike his Jim.
Elizabeth Rivera’s scene design showed an incredible attention to detail and contained a fluid sense of movement. However, the placement of the downstage walls completely blocks the center stage window that doubles as a projection screen from certain seats and the geometric, naturalistic appearance of the set also seemed to conflict with the ethereal quality that would seem to be prevalent in a dream. The space does prove to be exceptionally functional allowing for multiple entrances and exits and it perfectly showcases the enduring images that Hideaki Tsutsui’s incredible lighting design brings to the production. Tsutsui's well conceived and gorgeously executed design moves us through time, space, reality, and dream with incredible ease. The simple but necessary sound design by Jorge Munoz Vera also contributes greatly to the show, wafting delicately as if residing in the subconscious until rising with a hauntingly beautiful final song. Crystal Herman's costumes are masterfully done. The clothing identifies the nature and state of each character almost immediately and the dresses donned by Amanda and Laura as they prepare for the gentleman caller are comically sad and endearingly adorable. The hair and make-up design by Monica Hernandez was well executed as well, although the short length of Amanda’s hair seems out of character. The only element that seemed out of place was the projections. Used in the beginning to establish the non-realistic element of the show, they virtually vanish for the remainder of the piece and prove to have almost no additive quality that would justify the employment of projections at all.
Overall the show proves to be a piece that is clear in vision and clean in execution. As a testament to their talent, the entire production carries a tremendous amount of heart, from toughtful direction, to sincere performances, and evocative technical designs into their work. Saldana's The Glass Menagerie is a delicate piece that allows Tennessee's personal story of fragility to reach out to it's audience. It is a powerful demonstration of fragility.
Abraham Jallad, Avery Segapelli, and Ilene Steele are the Wingfields in UTEP's The Glass Menagerie
The UTEP Department of Theatre & Dance presents Tennessee Williams' classic play The Glass Menagerie that takes audiences on an emotional journey where colorful characters struggle to survive by desperately drowning themselves in worlds of memory, fantasy, and illusion.
UTEP Fox Fine Arts Wise Family Theatre (2nd floor)
Oct. 9-10, 15-17 at 8 p.m.
Oct. 11 & 18 at 2:30 p.m.
Admission: $12 adults; $10 UTEP faculty/staff, seniors, military, groups 10+, non-UTEP students; $9 UTEP students, children age 4-12