San Francisco Chronicle
Good intentions and an inability to listen
There’s a difference between not listening as a character and not listening as an actor.
In Layce Lynne Kieu’s performance for African-American Shakespeare Company, Amanda Wingfield, the matriarch of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” is the sort of person whose every sigh, simper and flutter everyone else must await, lest they chew too quickly or vocalize prematurely.
One of American theater’s great characters, she operates by sucking up all the air and ladling the Southern politesse on thick, all while having her good intentions worn to the nub by social and economic circumstance. So of course Amanda Wingfield the character can’t listen. Heeding her dreamy children, Tom (Elijah Jalil Paz Fisher) and Laura (Mars Holscher), might further imperil their already threadbare survival in their sad St. Louis flat.
And yet not listening as a stage actor is deadly. It stifles the liveness, the danger and the moment-to-moment possibility that defines theater. To do the first without falling into the trap of the second is one of the many challenges of playing Amanda. The actor’s task here is to show how not listening, and doubling and tripling down on not listening, is in fact a clinging-to-life response to vicissitudes, to every cue or lack of cue her children feed her.
In Monica White Ndounou’s production, which I saw Sunday, March 19, at Marines’ Memorial Theatre, Kieu swells to fill Amanda’s largerthan-life imprint, but she runs on a predetermined track. When her Amanda confronts Holscher’s congenitally shy Laura, who suffers from a limp, about why she’s been playing hooky from business college classes, a gap yawns between the two performers. Each gropes in the dark but lacks a foundation from which to connect.
The show, part of the company’s venerable tradition of “envisioning the classics with color,” gains steam whenever Fisher’s Tom is onstage. A narrator and avatar for the playwright, Tom speaks in jaunty yet delicate lyrics that
sail off like paper boats: “I didn’t go to the moon, I went much further — for time is the longest distance between two places.” “I was fired for writing a poem on the lid of a shoebox.” Proving himself a young talent to watch, Fisher knows just when to make syllables sing, when to make them ricochet, when to make them spark.
Then there’s that knockout scene between Laura and her “gentleman caller” (Justin P. Lopez), on whom the family’s romantic and financial hopes rest. Any chance to witness this tremulous, pure exchange between two fast-beating hearts is worth seizing, and Lopez and Holscher send it aloft. They make every line smolder with desire yet darken it with the fear, maybe the knowledge, that such desire can’t be fulfilled.
In the play, which opened on Broadway in 1945, Laura and Amanda are burdens that need to be taken care of. Though gender norms have thankfully evolved in the ensuing 78 years, the play still looks prescient. For all our economic growth, the American family is still on its own, with no safety net when a son turns prodigal or a gentleman caller vanishes back into the ether from which he came.