If you asked me to come up with a list of, say, 50 plays that should be performed by a children’s theater, nothing by Tennessee Williams would make that list.
It isn’t only because of the material, that weighty, stifling, angry, desperate, liquor-soaked material, but also because the dynamics of the play are all wrong when you have a teenage Tom battling it out with an Amanda who in any other production would be the right age but in this case comes across as his grandmother.
But I do realize that Boston Children’s Theatre’s production of The Glass Menagerie, which is being directed by Burgess Clark, is somewhat immune to such criticism given the company’s invaluable mission to give voice to young artists. And indeed, what an incredible thing it is for three young artists to play some of the most complicated roles ever written for the stage.
It is common BCT practice to have adults cast alongside the younger actors in certain key roles, just as Kate Miller is cast here as Amanda, the aging Southern belle blind to reality who is left with her two adult children after her husband abandoned them years prior. But the other side of the mission coin is one where paying audiences are coming to see a story being told. For that reason, The Glass Menagerie isn’t an ideal choice.
It isn’t that the actors aren’t capable: 17-year-old Genevieve Young plays Laura with the requisite gentility and inferiority, and 16-year-old Keith Robinson plays Jim O’Connor, the gentleman caller, with the confidence and brio of an actor twice his age. The problem, really, is that a 15-year-old boy plays Tom. The trouble isn’t the actor (Charlie Berger does just fine) but his age. Tom is an angry, frustrated, disillusioned man who drinks too much and feels suffocated by the fact that he has to work hard to support his family, something his long-gone father should have done. When a 15-year-old child portrays Tom, much of what is necessarily complicated about this character goes out the window (or, as the case may be, down the fire escape), and as a result, the other relationships in the play don’t work. And then there’s the homosexuality of Tom, which is never touched on or explored in this production. (Because: kids).
Whether it was Clark’s intention or not, there are many moments in this Menagerie that garner laughs where they should not, and that is partially due to the fact that a child is playing Tom. “I’m going to the movies” shouldn’t be funny. His drunkenness shouldn’t be funny. As a result, the play is neutered by the audience’s inability to see the cracked soul of Tom Wingfield.
With that said, The Glass Menagerie does come alive in the second act. It is the latter half (the Tom-less half) where the production approaches a kind of magic, gorgeously lit by Gifford Williams, that hints at just how potent a production this company is capable of.
THE GLASS MENAGERIE. THROUGH 3.16 AT BOSTON CHILDREN’S THEATRE AT THE PLAZA THEATRE, 539 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. BOSTONTHEATRESCENE.COM
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.