For Whom the Belle Tolls






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Publication: Syracuse New Times
Author: MacKillop, James
Date published: May 9, 2012

For Whom the Belle Tolls

Kate Huddleston's powerhouse turn as Amanda Wingfield dominates Appleseed's take on Tennessee Williams' memoir The Glass Menagerie

The years have been kind to actress Kate Huddleston, one of the youngest people ever to get a Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) Lifetime Achievement Award. As the decades unfold she keeps lining up the right role for where she is at that moment. Three decades ago, she was a sultry (if fresh-faced and redheaded) Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Add 10 years of maturity and she perfectly projected the cool inquiry of Dr. Livingston in Agnes of God. Ready for the matronly after another decade, her powerhouse Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker electrified audiences.

In all those years of practice Huddleston seems to have been shaping up (not to mention becoming massively slimmer than her craven Russian aristocrat in Garrett Heater's The Romanovs from last year) for Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, Appleseed Productions' current show. Now she's ready to make Amanda Wingfield, one of the great female enchiladas of the American theater, her own.

The Glass Menagerie might be a masterpiece, but it's also widely studied and deeply familiar. No member of an audience arrives these days without knowing that this is the most autobiographical of all Williams plays. The characters Tom, Amanda and Laura are based on him, his mother and sister while they were living in straightened circumstances in St. Louis, having fallen from social status, if not affluence, in small-town Mississippi. Also, dozens of pieces of dialogue, like "blue roses" for "pleurosis," are taken from his life.

Given this rooting, Menagerie cannot easily be revolutionized by, for example, giving it an all-black cast, as with the current, not-a-fabulous-success version of A Streetcar Names Desire in Manhattan. Director Linda Lance's first task in making sure that this Menagerie is not the same old thing is to exploit all the individuality her four players bring. Of them, Huddleston has the only familiar face.

Lance and Huddleston are asking us to put aside all those dramatic heavyweights who have played Amanda, like Katharine Hepburn in a 1973 TV-movie and Joanne Woodward, directed by her adoring husband Paul Newman for a 1987 movie. In Irving Rapper's underrated film version (1950), the role went to Gertrude Lawrence, Noel Coward's longtime laugh partner and one of the most gifted comediennes of her day. Remembering that, we should be prepared to see that Huddleston's Amanda not only makes us wince and groan, she also makes us guffaw, frequently.

It's hardly news that Tennessee Williams was an heir of Anton Chekhov. Where that connection is most apparent is in our seeing that his characters, all of them but especially Amanda, are not what they tell us they are. Did Amanda leave the Episcopal Church because they had a card party in the basement? Maybe she was at least a hoighty Episcopalian in a state full of Baptists. Huddleston's Amanda is delusional, self-obsessed, grasping and more than a bit silly. For all her hectoring of her children, she cares more about how she is perceived than how they might find happiness. As Huddleston portrays Amanda, however, we can see that love really trumps vanity. The Gentleman Caller's early departure is a more crushing blow for her than for anyone else.

As Tom (Williams' name before he changed it to Tennessee), almost-newcomer Jesse Orton tells us he is cast against type. His program bio says he was in a local production of Harvey eight years ago, is more used to comedy, and has just returned to town. Williams' prose poetry in the opening soliloquy ("their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy") does not play to Orton's strengths. He does extremely well in the sharp exchanges with Amanda, raising tensions as other Tom-aswounded- poet portrayals do not. Further, his well-timed delivery makes Tom crisper, asserting his presence in every scene.

Laura Wingfield is usually a plum role for a wan, plain-but-appealing actress, like the younger Calista Flockhart. Measured by that standard, Sharon Sorkin, another newcomer, would never have been sent by Central Casting. She's a sloe-eyed beauty who looks like one of those Viennese debutantes in a Gustav Klimt portrait. And she pretty much neglects Laura's limp.

Sorkin's acting chops, happily, blow these doubts away. In New York City and Tanglewood, she's already played Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Marty in Grease, and she knows just what to do here. Her Laura speaks in a choked whisper, barely able to get a word out, except to say that she's had only one crush in her life, for a boy named "Jim." Sorkin, despite her presence and those eyebrows, has a way of making Laura almost disappear when she does not want to answer a question, such as why she quit typing school.

In the role of the Gentleman Caller, Jim O'Connor, we perceive an alien presence, unattuned to the neuroses that fog the household. Scott D. Pflanz's Jim is neither a brute nor an unaware dolt, even though his go-getter confidence in the transformative powers of taking public speaking classes at night school comes off as comic. He puts in a stick of Wrigley's gum before the love scene on the rug in the candlelight. It's just the note to taint Laura's one moment of happiness with the unattainable boy of her dreams. No cad, he's just an innocent heartbreaker.

The wide stage at the Atonement Lutheran Church, Appleseed's stomping grounds, makes the cramped Wingfield apartment appear more capacious than it could have been. To compensate producer Wendy Huntley gives us a grim, Spartan domicile, one that needs a fire escape for Tom's privacy. Dan Randall and Jeff LaDuca's unsparing lighting adds to this discomfort.

The Glass Menagerie's place in the dramatic canon is reassured in this production. And it gives us a Kate Huddleston, like Miss Jean Brodie, still in her prime.

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