It's about damn time, Kansas City Repertory Theatre. At last, after several seasons out in the cold and then a 2008 marked by spirited flirting, your first production of 2009 finds you shacked up once again with your old flame Pre-eminence. Remember how good it feels? To set the standard, to be the theater to which patrons subscribe not out of habit or some sense of arts-supporting civic responsibility, but because your stage is that singular place where they experience great works on a grand scale.
Before director David Cromer's extraordinary Glass Menagerie had even started, I could tell something was up. Collette Pollard's fractured set is inventive yet still reassuringly homey. But with its papered walls and chandeliered ceilings set at cockeyed angles, unconnected to the floor or one another, the hardwood apartment of Tennessee Williams' Wingfield family is frozen in the midst of an explosion. The effect is jagged and disorienting but not abstract — as usual, the Rep has lavished its set with lovely period details to create a world. But this time, it has also dared a physical representation of what life would feel like in that world. When the play begins, Tom and his mother, Amanda, are colliding particles, and the kinetic energy from their confrontations is blowing the doors off.
The lights lower and then, with no fanfare, there is Derek Hasenstab as Tom, our narrator, standing in his seaman's coat in the center of the house. As Tom delivers Williams' opening monologue — suffering the bitter ache of a man who knows he has hurt people — his face appears projected, live, onto one of the wide shards of ceiling. His eyes are sunk in shadows. As I shifted my attention from actor to projection — "editing" the scene by moving my head — I marveled at Hasenstab's ability to act, in one moment, for both stage and screen: He's booming enough to sell the scene to the rafters, yet his face is subtle enough to communicate fine gradations of loss and suffering blown up to the size of a roof.
Tom's monologue lets us know that this is a "memory" play, one in which we learn how he came to leave his family to wander the world as a merchant sailor. As he speaks, the dark house fills with life: his older sister, Laura (Susan Bennett), crippled more by shyness than the childhood illness that left her with a limp, and his mother, Amanda (Annalee Jefferies), a would-be matriarch of the old plantation who has found herself in a St. Louis tenement, abandoned by her husband and anxious to marry off Laura. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Cady's lights create a series of dark feelings that are as film-subtle but theater-huge as anything happening on Hasenstab's face. (Cady also handled the projections, which are far and away the best I've seen on a Kansas City stage.) By the time the monologue swells to its finish, and past and present collide with Amanda calling Tom's younger self into the house, I was ready to applaud right then.
What follows is a great writer's masterwork, presented by gifted artists at the top of their game. All three leads are excellent. Hasenstab is heartbreaking as a dreamy poet stuck working in a warehouse to support an impossible mother. Jefferies, playing that lost, sentimental mom, crafts a woman whom we care for even as she rules her kids through guilt and strength. Her spats with Tom veer from comic to tragic, sometimes with both bound up together. As directed by Cromer, their movements are crisp and revealing. At one point, when Tom makes up with her after a particularly nasty fight, he seems to be giving in to her needs as he hugs her. Then, with another of those subtle but unmissable flickers of feeling, he collapses into her, needing her, too.
Bennett is also affecting in the role of Laura. She plods along, her body hunched in on itself, limping but sure-footed as long as she stays inside that house. We feel Laura's loneliness but also her uneasy comfort: As long as she has her collection of glass figurines to polish, she might not be unhappy stuck in this house. There's a reedy whistle to Bennett's voice, and her Laura often speaks as if she's talking to nobody in particular — she's just letting the words leak out.
In the final scenes, though, when her mother and brother have scared up a gentleman caller for her, she makes a connection with the same ferocity that her family reserves for collisions. During her long talk with Jim (the excellent Kyle Hatley), on the floor of that apartment lighted only by candelabra, Cromer and his team pull off one one of those rare moments in a theater in which all the elements of stagecraft come together so seamlessly, and with such power, that the crowd hushes, leans in and utterly loses itself.
Pre-eminence is being able to do something like this on a regular basis. Let's hope that this first clear triumph under new artistic director Eric Rosen isn't a one-show fling.
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