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Review: No cracks in Croswell's elegant 'Glass Menagerie'

Julie Dolan in a scene from 'The Glass Menagerie' courtesy of The Croswell Opera House


"I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you the illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you the truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion” That memorable speech, like many others from Tennessee Williams' semi-autobiographical play "The Glass Menagerie," is currently being brought to life on The Croswell Opera House stage. Although it seems many theaters are wary of staging the memory play, or most classic American plays because they don't possess the box office draw of a flashy musical, for many who’ve grown up reading Williams' literature, for pleasure or study, it is a welcome addition to any theatre season. Truthfully, I feel audiences need to see more of this type of theatre, and I applaud The Croswell Opera House for supplementing this timely piece of history in their current lineup. Don’t get me wrong, the “Mamma Mia’s and “Barnum’s” are fun in their own merits, but sometimes it's nice to dig into the rich subtext and gorgeous dialogue of a well-versed play. The current staging of “The Glass Menagerie” at The Croswell creates a well-rendered production, complete with a cast who understands the family dynamics unravelling as the show progresses, and a scenic design by Douglas Miller who continues to elevate the theatrical-going experience in Adrian, Michigan (I would constantly find myself engulfed in Miller’s set dressings and minor attention to details and forget to watch the show). If you’re worried that Williams’ script hasn’t aged well, or on the fence about seeing, of all things, a play – let me be the first to say “The Glass Menagerie” is as emotionally gripping and effective as ever. Pete Crist takes the helm playing Tom, the somewhat omniscient narrator and character based on the playwright himself who spends chunks at a time recalling his family in depression-era St. Louis. Tom has dreams of becoming a writer, but spends his days taking in the local cinema (he goes to the movies...a lot) and punches the clock at a warehouse. His mother, Amanda - (a fierce and scene stealing Julianne Dolan) - is a faded Southern Belle abandoned by her husband and thus reduced to sell magazine subscriptions to put food on the table. Amanda spends most of her time trying to marry off her daughter Laura (Tara Althaus), Tom’s delicate sister, who, as he puts it, is painfully shy and socially awkward with guys her own age. Eventually Tom brings a gentleman caller, a work colleague named Jim (Mat Pecek) as a potential suitor for the quirky Laura. Hailed as one of the most important works of the 20th century, “Menagerie” - like other Williams classics: “Streetcar Named Desire,” “Summer and Smoke,” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” is written into the pantheons of landmark theatre. So, you can imagine the type of weight you bare when producing a show of this caliber, and The Croswell has managed to pull exceptional talent from their local pockets, with Crist cementing beautifully crafted layers in a trademark performance who must contend with Dolan’s electric portrayal of Amanda. Dolan is a frequent flyer behind the scenes at The Croswell, having worked for the public-school system for 25 years and directing numerous productions for the opera house, most recently including the wonderful “She Loves Me” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” It’s refreshing to see the veteran take a bow on stage where it feels like she belongs, and what better role to call her back to the stage than Amanda? Dolan and Crist exhibit great strengths in their quick banter, snappy sarcasm, and organic relationships. However, due to its longevity and near perfect writing, “Menagerie” is attractive to performers because it affords them the opportunity to relay a sympathetic story.

While Mat Pecek’s Jim and Tara Althaus’s Laura might get less stage time in comparison to Tom and Amanda, they both shine in the moments they share together. Specifically, the last twenty minutes of the production where the two reminisce about their high school glory days, yielding harmless crushes, pop some chewing gum, and discuss Laura’s symbolic glass doll collection. It’s probably one of the most iconic scenes in theatre, and director Matthew D. Bowland transports us to this moment with his intimate, yet traditional, staging; reinforcing how this production never feels like it's cluttered or muffled in any capacity. Williams’ characters are complex, their language rich and poetic, and with the support of a brilliant technical team, they blossom to life on stage. Helping to craft this American classic are composer Luke D. Rosen, who manifests a brilliant score to accompany the rich texture of the play; costumer Marianna Steele, giving these characters a period appropriate dynamic; and, of course, Tiff Crutchfield’s fine lighting design marries swimmingly with Doug Miller’s intricate and eye-boggling set design. Bowland and his crew find the line between dreamlike illusions and harsh realities; a hard feature to accomplish in the wake of the big budget musicals audiences are accustomed to as of late. But The Croswell has found a top-notch cast who offer a wonderful versatility as the show reaches its boiling climax. All these actors are magnificent, and each find commanding moments throughout their time on stage to leave a memorable impression. If you’ve never seen “The Glass Menagerie” live on stage, now is the time. IF YOU WISH TO GO: The Croswell's production of "The Glass Menagerie” continues through Sunday March 10th. To purchase tickets and see showtimes you can click the link here

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