Grit and Polish – Ensemble Theatre takes on Tennessee Williams and ‘The Glass Menagerie’

 Erin Pineda plays Laura and Joel J. Gelman is the "Gentleman Caller," on whom the Wingfield family pins their hopes and dreams, in Ensemble Theatre's production of "The Glass Menagerie." David Bazemore

Erin Pineda plays Laura and Joel J. Gelman is the “Gentleman Caller,” on whom the Wingfield family pins their hopes and dreams, in Ensemble Theatre’s production of “The Glass Menagerie.”
David Bazemore

There’s a lot of dust and funk that has covered “The Glass Menagerie” in the 65 years since its premiere. The campy parodies, the popular and “definitive” portrayals of the Wingfield family by stars like Katharine Hepburn, John Malkovich and Karen Allen. The celluloid amber of Anthony Harvey’s 1973 version. But if any company in town can polish and make this classic look brand new, it’s Jonathan Fox and Ensemble Theatre.

“The characters have become iconic and the lines are so well-known, like ‘Hamlet,’ ” says Fox, who directs. “It becomes a challenge to figure out what might be fresh.”

Sara Botsford plays the matriarch Amanda Wingfield, once a proud Southern Belle, now existing in a Depression era tenement in St. Louis and looking after son Tom (Joe Delafield) — whose memory this play is — and daughter Laura (Erin Pineda), slightly crippled both mentally and physically.

“At some point you have to stop and say, ‘wait, what is actually going on in these scenes?’ And this is about one dysfunctional family where things really don’t work out too well,” says Botsford.

Having directed both “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Jonathan Fox looks to Williams with an eye on the personal. There is, he says, much in Tom’s life that reminds him of issues — a single mother, a sister — that he grew up with in his 20s.

“It’s a take on the play that deals with Tom and his view on the story,” figures Fox.

Out are the fabrics and scrim that Williams outlines in the script to be a part of the stage. “We’ve gone with glass, something more fragile and easily shattered,” says Fox, more as a metaphor. “And glass can be used like we use scrim in theater … I was trying to find something new, and using glass is less common, but also gives it an industrial feel. We’re using layers of glass that the narrator can look through into the past.”

“I was surprised upon re-reading the play,” says Botsford, who hadn’t picked up the script since college. “How tough it is. There’s a lot of grit in it.”

“The play is deceptively simple when you first read it,” agrees Fox. “But then you get in and you realize there are layers and layers to explore. It’s tighter than ‘Cat’ or ‘Streetcar,’ which has wilder moments.”

In the end, “The Glass Menagerie,” as in other Williams’ works, focuses on that peculiar disease that grips populations: nostalgia for simpler, “better” times.

“We have amazing technological advances that occur on a daily basis,” Botsford says. “But we live at a time where people complain how things are built or made anymore. We have that nostalgia for ideal American things. And how do we know that’s true?”

Erin Pineda plays Laura and Joel J. Gelman is the “Gentleman Caller,” on whom the Wingfield family pins their hopes and dreams, in Ensemble Theatre’s production of “The Glass Menagerie.”

‘THE GLASS MENAGERIE’
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sundays; through May 2
Where: Alhecama Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara St.
Cost: $29 to $48
Information: www.ensembletheatre.com or (805) 965-5400

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