September 8, 2010
Edelstein’s bold revival of Williams classic ‘Menagerie’
Widely recognized as one of the most esteemed theater directors working today, Gordon Edelstein at one time considered becoming a rabbi. That was in the early 1970s, when he was a religious studies major at Grinnell College in Iowa.
“It’s a very short distance between the clergy and the theater,” Edelstein said in an interview before a rehearsal of his rethinking of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” opening at the Mark Taper Forum on Sept. 12. “Particularly the Judeo-Christian tradition uses stories to reveal fundamental truths about human beings and our relationship to the universe. I think the exact same words could be applied to the practice of theater.”
Edelstein, currently in his eighth season as artistic director at the Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut, has applied that approach to works as varied as Donald Margulies’ adaptation of the Yiddish-language “God of Vengeance,” as well as plays by Athol Fugard and Anna Deavere Smith.
His “Glass Menagerie” has been lauded for its fresh, almost gritty approach to Williams’ 1944 classic; in it, the character of Tom Wingfield (Patch Darragh) —Williams’ alter ego — does not recount family memories with yearning regret “but with the anguished sense that they contain the bitter truth of his life that he has never before been willing to face,” as a writer for The New York Times put it.
In traditional productions, Tom, a restless dreamer, recites his lyrical monologues directly to the audience while, in between, his past is acted out on a set of the Wingfields’ St. Louis tenement home. Tom appears only in scenes in which he interacts with his overbearing former Southern belle mother, Amanda, (Judith Ivey), his fragile sister, Laura (Keira Keeley) and the “gentleman caller” Jim (Ben McKenzie), who comes to dinner in the devastating second act.
Edelstein reset the action entirely in a shabby hotel room, where Tom is struggling to write a play about his searing past as the images in his head come to life. The other actors enter as he types and scribbles notes, envisions scenes or acts out roles aloud.
“Gordon has an incredible understanding of the classic plays, and he is incredibly collaborative in his approach,” Darragh said. “As an actor, this has given me a great opportunity to open up an already challenging role — to play the young man in St. Louis who is still searching for his identity, and then the more mature character embracing himself as a writer, a homosexual, an artist and an individual.”
Edelstein said “The Glass Menagerie” had been on his to-do list for years when he originated the production in 2009 at the Long Wharf. “I first saw it when I was 17, in a student production that probably wasn’t any good, but I was completely shattered by the play,” he said.
Yet he remained dissatisfied with productions he has seen over the years. “Great directors and great actors have done this play, but in my opinion it hasn’t really worked. My question was, ‘Why?’ ... The character of Tom seemed really to be the author’s stand-in; the play was really about him, yet he disappeared for long periods of time. So I thought, ‘How can I help make him more central?’ In having Tom actually write the play as it unfolds, the character remains on stage for much of the show and more directly serves as a stand-in for Williams himself.”
To prepare for his revival, Edelstein read all of the biographies of Williams, as well as the playwright’s letters and notebooks. “We do know the address of the hotel where he stayed in New Orleans after he left St. Louis — so the production imagines that that was where he began ‘The Glass Menagerie,’ ” Edelstein said. “What this production has flagrantly stolen from [the] biography is the objects Williams brought to that hotel: his typewriter, the record player, the suitcase, a bottle of bourbon.”
As the rehearsal got under way, the director said permission had been obtained from the fire marshal for candelabrum in the second act: “So we can light the menorah every night,” he quipped.
For Edelstein, “The Glass Menagerie” is the latest endeavor in a career that has included hundreds of productions and five years as artistic director of the prestigious ACT — A Contemporary Theatre — in Seattle.
Jewish-themed work has figured prominently in his career, from “God of Vengeance” to Athol Fugard’s “Have You Seen Us?” an exploration of racism whose characters include an elderly Jewish couple and a bitter South African expatriate.
“Jewish-based work has always interested me,” said Edelstein, who grew up with liberal activist parents in a Conservative home on Long Island and is now an active member at B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan. “I remain identified in a way that is in some ways uncharacteristic for people in my profession, so this kind material will often come to me.”
It is no coincidence that some of the work has spotlighted the troubled relationship between blacks and Jews: “If I were to play armchair psychologist with myself, it has something to do with ... the Saturday mornings I drove with my father from our home on Long Island to work at his pawnshop in Harlem,” the director said. In 1994, that fascination led him to direct and champion Michael Henry Brown’s “The Day the Bronx Died,” which involves the story of two childhood friends, one black, one Jewish, and their struggles in a racist world.
A different kind of impetus drew Edelstein to “God of Vengeance,” Sholem Asch’s 1907 drama about a Jewish brothel owner in Poland whose daughter runs away with one of his prostitutes. “It is the story of ‘Juliet and Juliet,’ ” Edelstein said. Margulies’ adaptation set the play on the Lower East Side in 1923, allowing Edelstein to connect with his beloved late grandfather.
“I’m also attracted to irreverence,” he added, “and I suppose Asch’s impulse for the play is rebellious. It’s a young man shooting the raspberry at his parents. I’m close to my parents but there’s a side of me that still gets a thrill at putting on a play in which there is a lesbian love scene in one room while a Torah is arriving in the next.”
Two prominent reviewers saw Edelstein’s “The Glass Menagerie” as irreverent, although that was never the director’s intention. While other critics applauded the production, John Lahr of The New Yorker and Michael Feingold of The Village Voice complained about Edelstein’s unorthodox approach. “We clearly offended a minority who thought we were [messing] with this great classic,” the director said. “But if you read the stage directions at the beginning of the play, Williams is very clear to say to directors, this is [his] idea, but in the future, there will be new technologies, and new ideas — go for it.’”
Tickets and information, visit www.centertheatregroup.org.