Erika Soto and Deborah Strang in 'The Glass Menagerie' at A Noise Within (Photo - Craig Schwartz)

      Erika Soto and Deborah Strang in ‘The Glass Menagerie’ at A Noise Within (Photo – Craig Schwartz)

      “Let Me In” has been the theme of this season at Pasadena’s A Noise Within (ANW) theater company. If ever a character stood for that, it’s Southern mother Amanda Wingfield in the current production, Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie.”

      By Melanie Hook

      The quintessential passive-aggressive Amanda is one of those characters actresses spend their lives dreaming of playing (the professional who accompanied me to the performance certainly does), and this is Deborah Strang’s second incarnation of the role at ANW. One can’t help feeling she would have been too young her first time out, twenty years ago, though Strang’s consummate skill most likely was strong enough to carry it even then. But now is her time. She seems born to play this role, and that’s because it doesn’t feel like she’s playing anything. Her naturalism simply “is” at all times onstage. She listens, reacts, visibly thinks of her problems and experiences her feelings in real time, elevating everyone else’s performances around her.

      Indeed all four roles are filled by ANW Resident Artists, familiar to audiences and each other, but Strang as lead this time around (especially welcome after several seasons of male-led shows) gives the younger co-lead Rafael Goldstein (this time out as Tom Wingfield, Amanda’s son), Erika Soto (as Laura, Amanda’s daughter) and Kasey Mahaffy (as Jim O’Connor) the kind of high bar to reach that only a seasoned stage veteran can embody.

      Goldstein infuses Tom with the most range and vulnerability he’s shown to date on the ANW stage. He allows himself (and us) moments of genuine pleasure and mirth amongst Williams’s general gloom and cynicism, along with a tenderness toward both his mother and sister, that lend a deeper pathos to the characters’ suffering. One of the real pleasures of a Resident Artist repertory system such as ANW’s is watching artists grow over time, and with the role of Tom, Goldstein rewards director (and ANW Co-Artistic Director) Geoff Elliott’s faith in him. Goldstein proves he has more than just a gift for crisp dialogue and picture-perfect memory. He fills Tom’s shoes with a longing for adventure and sincere connection, even as he despairs of finding either, stuck at home as the breadwinner in a dead-end factory job.

      The story is simple enough: a poor Mississippi family of three, long since abandoned by their alcoholic husband/father, fight to survive the Depression and each other’s demands, especially those of over-protective and guilt-driven matriarch Amanda, who (as stated in the official press release) “doesn’t realize that her own eccentricities are the biggest threat to their psychological survival.”

      Her frustration threatens to crush her daughter Laura, painfully shy and completely isolated from her peers, a young woman who hides her lame leg and social anxiety at home. Erika Soto’s portrayal suggests a slightly stagier anxiety than Strang’s more innate performance, especially in the first half of the play. Once her ‘gentleman caller’ (Kasey Mahaffy) arrives after intermission though, the two settle into a rhythm that brings out both Laura and Soto’s more effective reactions.

      Rafael Goldstein and Kasey Mahaffy in 'The Glass Menagerie' at A Noise Within (Photo - Craig Schwartz)

      Rafael Goldstein and Kasey Mahaffy in ‘The Glass Menagerie’ at A Noise Within (Photo – Craig Schwartz)

      Mahaffy consistently delights. This time around as ‘caller’ Jim O’Connor is no exception as he digs into a less savory character than in his last few outings, giving him a chance to show off some sharper edges that challenge our understanding of compassion and its expressions.

      In fact, director Elliott intends to challenge traditional readings of where these characters end up, most evident in Laura’s ultimate reaction to Jim’s visit. Whether or not this more empowering final chapter existed as a possibility in Williams’s original script is arguable, but it felt intriguing to try it on for size in the context of a play which scrutinizes female-male power dynamics, especially within families.

      ANW’s always exemplary sets (Fred Kinney) and costume design (Jenny Foldenauer) once again add to the play’s resonance, this time a feeling of oppressive poverty (with an extra layer of guilt and frustration) broken up by the prominent downstage placement, brightly lit, of the Victrola and glass figures of the title. For Laura, these symbols of hope and a world outside keep her alive, while the upstage fire escape and ladder, tellingly ‘lit’ in shadow by Ken Booth, provide Tom with his own breakout temptation.

      The play asks us, ‘What price are you willing to pay for freedom…and who pays it?’ – ultimately becoming a quest to “Let Me Out” instead of “in.” We’ve likely all known someone like Amanda, who demands nothing less than all of our own ambitions and self to serve her own. But to come away with something like hope after an evening of those demands is the special gift of this particular production – well worth seeing and always, worth feeling.


      > As part of its run, “The Glass Menagerie” cast and crew will hold post-show conversations on Sunday, March 10 (2:00 pm performance), and Fridays April 5 and April 26, 2019.

      A Glass Menagerie
      • Directed by Geoff Elliott
      Scenic Design by Fred Kinney
      Costume Design by Jenny Foldenauer
      Lighting Design by Ken Booth
      Original Music/Sound Design by Robert Oriol
      • Cast:
      Deborah Strang, Rafael Goldstein, Erika Soto, and Kasey Mahaffy.
      A Noise Within
      3352 E. Foothill, Pasadena, CA 91107

      • Through April 26
      Free parking.
      General admission: $25 – $78 (discount tickets for some dates available @ goldstar.com)
      Purchase tickets here.

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