YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Youngstown State University ushered in this hybrid theater season with an intense production of “The Glass Menagerie” that easily made the jump to the small screen.
The filmed presentation of Tennessee Williams’ classic play had that same wondrous power to rivet attention as a live show. In some ways even more, because with multiple cameras, the focus was always in the best spot.
YSU Theater’s two-weekend run of “Menagerie” this month was the first virtual production I’ve seen since the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered theaters. It was more theater than film, but had the best elements of each.
It was not a spliced-together Zoom concoction, designed to keep actors apart for social distancing reasons.
Under the direction of professor Matthew Mazuroski, the play came first.
Mazuroski’s shows always pack a punch and this was no exception. His “Menagerie” was a harrowing peek into a hothouse of repression and dissatisfaction.
Williams’ semi-autobiographical memory play was told with airtight focus on his fragile family. It was like a snow globe of sadness.
All of the action takes place in the Wingfield family’s humble flat in 1930s St. Louis. A fancy but aging meridienne sofa in the living room looked just as out of place as the characters. It was a metaphor for them.
Mrs. Wingfield, played by local theater veteran Molly Galano, is the domineering matriarch of the unhappy trio. She fusses over her unfulfilled son, Tom, and her painfully shy daughter, Laura.
Galano’s Mrs. Wingfield had to be dealt with on her own terms. She flitted between memories of her glorious younger years and her uncertain future. But her present was all about manipulating her children so she could better their lives – and her own.
She wants to motivate her son, the breadwinner of the family, to move up the ladder at his menial warehouse job, even straightening his posture as he sits down to breakfast.
But Tom, who wants to be a writer, is going out of his skull and yearns to leave. He chafes under his dreary existence and plots an escape to a life of adventure.
Meanwhile, the emotionally damaged Laura wants nothing at all to do with the world, even as mom preps her to land a man who will pay the bills after Tom leaves.
All three are living an unresolved existence under the shadow of Mr. Wingfield, the husband and father who walked out 16 years ago but whose presence still hangs over the apartment. A portrait of him on the wall floats in the blackness.
In YSU’s production, the set is lit so that everything is darkness – except the actors and the furniture. The lighting blocks out all other reality from these rooms.
Credit for the atmosphere goes to scenic designer Todd Dicken; costume designer Katherine Garlick; properties designer Wendy Akers; and lighting designer Nic Wix.
The cast was the other part of the package. And it was simply outstanding.
As guest artist and the only non-student, Galano was a force. Casting her as the headstrong matriarch was hardly a fair fight, as Galano is always masterful in this type of role. Impervious and overbearing, she portrays an aging Southern belle. Her life may be in ruins but her pride is intact.
In the role of her son Tom, YSU senior Nate Montgomery depicts a young man who is never where he wants to be whether he’s at home or at work.
He’s a literary sort who does not fit in with the blue-collar bunch at the warehouse. In the evenings, the apartment is a prison from which he temporarily escapes to bars and movie theaters.
As this is a memory play, Montgomery also serves as the narrator. He’s telling the story; and he did it with a noir-ish flair.
YSU sophomore Elise Vargo created so much empathy for her character, Laura, who is socially hobbled by an inferiority complex.
Her fragile emotional state parallels the tiny glass animals that she collects and loves. Vargo gives the role that same “handle with care” instability.
Mazuroski’s “Menagerie” kept getting better as it went along, culminating in a final scene that was simply remarkable and also heartbreaking.
It begins when the self-confident Jim O’Connor, who is a friend of Tom and a high school crush of Laura, comes to dinner.
The dialog between O’Connor, played by YSU sophomore Mitchell Sharp, and Laura would have been excruciating had O’Connor not smoothed over every awkward moment with a chuckle.
As O’Connor, Sharp nailed it. His character performs a minor – but short-lived – miracle on Laura. Watching Vargo’s character bloom before being crushed was like riding a roller coaster with a dead end.
Up next for YSU Theater is a virtual production of “Elegies: A Song Cycle,” Nov. 13-15 and 20-22. Go to showtix4u.com for times and tickets.
Before that, Rust Belt Theater Company will present a virtual production of its raunchy Halloween spoof, “Living Dead: The Musical.”
To view it, send a donation of $5 or more to @Robert-Joki on Venmo. Include your email address in the memo line. In reply, a confirmation email will be sent from Rust Belt with a link to the prerecorded show on YouTube. It can be watched any time between Oct. 30 and Nov. 1. Donations are requested by midnight Oct. 29.
In late November, Trumbull New Theater will present the first live show of the season. It will produce the thriller “Wait Until Dark” at the 1,350-seat Robins Theatre in Warren Nov. 19-22.
Go to TrumbullNewTheatre.com for times and tickets.
Pictured: The cast of YSU Theater’s production of “The Glass Menagerie” included Nate Montgomery, Molly Galano and Elise Vargo.