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'The Glass Menagerie:' Tennessee Williams Tribute prepares a classic for area audiences

 

From left, Danielle Rivera, Daniel Talley and Laura Beth Berry rehearse a scene from Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” Tuesday at Mississippi University for Women’s Rent Auditorium. The Tennessee Williams Tribute and Tour of Victorian Homes presents the play nightly Sept. 8-10 and 12-13, with a matinee for students, teachers and seniors Sept. 7.

From left, Danielle Rivera, Daniel Talley and Laura Beth Berry rehearse a scene from Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” Tuesday at Mississippi University for Women’s Rent Auditorium. The Tennessee Williams Tribute and Tour of Victorian Homes presents the play nightly Sept. 8-10 and 12-13, with a matinee for students, teachers and seniors Sept. 7. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

Mississippi University for Women theater graduate Kayla Manzolillo directs “The Glass Menagerie.”

Mississippi University for Women theater graduate Kayla Manzolillo directs “The Glass Menagerie.”
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

Daniel Talley, as Tom Wingfield, argues with his mother, Amanda Wingfield, played by Laura Beth Berry at rehearsal Tuesday.

Daniel Talley, as Tom Wingfield, argues with his mother, Amanda Wingfield, played by Laura Beth Berry at rehearsal Tuesday.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

Dustin Gibson, of Columbus, portrays Jim O’Conner in ‘The Glass Menagerie’ production.

Dustin Gibson, of Columbus, portrays Jim O’Conner in ‘The Glass Menagerie’ production.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

The frail Laura, portrayed by Danielle Rivera in the foreground, meekly accepts her mother’s disappointment.

The frail Laura, portrayed by Danielle Rivera in the foreground, meekly accepts her mother’s disappointment.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

Laura (Danielle Rivera) retreats as her brother Tom (Daniel Talley) confronts their mother.

Laura (Danielle Rivera) retreats as her brother Tom (Daniel Talley) confronts their mother.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

 

Jan Swoope

 

The 13th annual Tennessee Williams Tribute Sept. 8-14 in Columbus has "destinations" to offer. Patrons at the Moon Lake Party, with its singular entertainment, might imagine sitting in a Broadway audience. Home tours will evoke the Victorian years. Linger in the town of St. Cloud, Florida, while watching the movie "Sweet Bird of Youth." Or stand on College Street and envision a 1940s New Orleans as Williams' iconic Stanley from "A Streetcar Named Desire" shouts up to his Stella.  

 

One of the most poignant destinations of the Tribute, however, may be a shabby apartment in St. Louis. That's the setting of "The Glass Menagerie." The 1944 play that catapulted the Columbus-born Williams from obscurity to fame will be presented at Rent Auditorium on the Mississippi University for Women campus.  

 

Daniel Talley is counting down the days. Talley, a teacher at New Hope Middle School, portrays Tom Wingfield in the production and also narrates the memory play with strong parallels to its author's own life. A histrionic mother, a physically and emotionally fragile sister, an absent father all reflect elements of Williams' personal story. 

 

Talley and his three cast mates are well aware they are performing a classic. The award-winning stage play has been made into two feature-length films, including one in 1987 directed by Paul Newman (John Malkovich portrayed Tom), and two films for television. Talley has made a point of not watching them. He's found in the past that can too often color his interpretation of a role. 

 

"This play is so well-known; that adds a lot of pressure," said the educator, who has been in three previous Tribute productions. "We want to get it right. We want it to be fresh and interesting, but at the same time be right on with what he [Williams] has written on the page."  

 

Kayla Manzolillo, an MUW theater graduate, has worked on production crews of other Williams' plays and makes her Tribute directing debut with "The Glass Menagerie." She couldn't have asked for a more plum launch.  

 

"What an honor to direct this in Tennessee Williams' hometown and on the MUW campus, where I graduated," she said. Manzolillo's goal is to put her own artistic spin on the play while staying true to its poetic nature. 

 

 

 

The Wingfields 

 

The story centers on the dysfunctional Wingfield family -- young Laura, portrayed by Danielle Rivera, her brother Tom, and a faded Southern belle of a mother, Amanda, played by Laura Beth Berry.  

 

The character of Laura has retreated from the world, preoccupied with her collection of glass animals. The conflicted Tom battles the drudgery of his job and an obligation to support the family. Amanda -- delusional, overbearing and abandoned by her husband -- loves her children yet only succeeds in pushing them away. 

 

"Amanda is very complex. She's not a hateful person, but just desperate," explained Berry, who is now in her fourth Tribute play. She is focused in rehearsals on conveying Amanda with humanity as well as that desperation.  

 

Berry played opposite Talley in Williams' "Period of Adjustment" in September 2013. 

 

"Last year we were husband and wife and we fought the whole time: This year we're mother and son and fight the whole time," she lightly laughed. 

 

 

 

Finding Laura 

 

Danielle Rivera makes her Tribute debut as Laura Wingfield. The Colorado native majored in theater education at the University of Northern Colorado and taught theater in Texas. She came to Columbus by way of the U.S. Air Force. "I married an Air Force guy, and we moved here in 2012," she said.  

 

Rivera studied Tennessee Williams in college. Living now in the city of the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning writer's birth has been illuminating. 

 

"I've learned so much about what the town has to offer, and not only the Tribute, but things like its other festivals and the arts and Pilgrimage," she observed. Many would see only a small town and think there isn't much to do, she elaborated. It just takes getting involved, the 28-year-old believes. Her job at the Coffee House on Fifth downtown made a difference, introducing her to local people. "Our two years here have been so great." 

 

As the play develops, Laura is flustered by an encounter with Jim O'Conner, a "gentleman caller," or at least that is what her mother hopes he'll be. The injection of a character from outside the troubled family trio sets up an emotional tableau. 

 

Dustin Gibson of Columbus returns from a summer theater stint in North Carolina to fill the role. He also serves as set designer. 

 

"I probably would not have done both unless I knew the part," said the 2011 MUW theater graduate, who has played Jim before. Asked about his character, Gibson said, "The best word to describe him is 'naive.' Jim doesn't know the situation he's getting into." 

 

The production crew, many of whom also attended or have connections to The W, includes Stage Manager Lindsey Tanner, Lighting Designer Nathan Algee, Properties Master Parker Yarbrough and Costume Designer Kay Manzolillo, mother of the director. Tribute Founder and Chair Brenda Caradine is the producer.  

 

"This year we are especially honored by the participation of W drama graduates directing, acting and staffing the production of 'The Glass Menagerie' on the campus with many other events of the weekend," remarked Caradine. "These young professionals are guaranteeing the future of this annual tribute to America's greatest playwright who was born and spent his early childhood in Columbus." 

 

 

 

A mighty pen 

 

The power of Tennessee Williams' writing has made an impact on cast and crew, especially this script with characters and circumstances rooted in the playwright's real family and its struggles. 

 

Berry saw parallels in a sentiment posted online by a friend about actor Robin Williams after his very recent death: "Creative people, especially creative geniuses, are often the most tortured souls because they are born seeing, feeling, knowing, confronting and conveying so perfectly for the rest of us the brightness and the darkness of being human. Their gift at times is torturous because they cannot turn it off." 

 

Berry said, "I think it applies perfectly to Tennessee Williams. He was able to express what so many of us see and feel but can't express." 

 

 

 

How to go 

 

The play is Sept. 8-10 and Sept. 13 at 7:30 p.m. in MUW's Rent Auditorium, and Sept. 12 at 8 p.m. A Student/Teacher/Seniors matinee Sept. 7 at 2:30 p.m. is also offered, with a curtain talk by Dr. Jack White, director emeritus of the MUW Honors program. After the matinee, the director, cast and crew will greet the audience. 

 

Tickets are $15, $10 for seniors and military service members. Regional students and teachers attend for $5. MUW students and faculty with ID attend free.  

 

Get advance tickets at the Columbus Arts Council's Rosenzweig Arts Center, 501 Main St., Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call 662-328-2787 for more ticket information. 

 

Many other events, several free, are part of the Tribute week. Visit muw.edu/tennesseewilliams.com for the schedule or pick up a brochure at the Tennessee Williams Home Welcome Center at 300 Main St. Call 662-328-0222 or 800-327-2686, or email Caradine at sbcaradine@cableone.net, for more Tribute information. 

 

"The Tennessee Williams Tribute committee is indebted to the many donors, volunteers and businesses that support our efforts to present a quality festival for quality of life in our community," said Caradine.  

 

The Tribute is made possible, in part, by the Mississippi Arts Commission, Mississippi Humanities Council and the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau, in addition to many other generous supporters.

 

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.

 

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