July 2011 – blogUT

Where: Young Centre in the Distillery District
When: See the season calendar. Glass Menagerie plays until September 6th. Kreutzer Sonata ends August 11th.
How to get cheap tickets: See the Top 5 Summer Theatre Festivals blog post.

Ted Dykstra directs two plays for the Soulpepper Theatre company this summer: the Tennessee Williams play, The Glass Menagerie, and the one-act, one man show, The Kreutzer Sonata. The first has a great cast and very solid direction, while the second is reasonably well acted by Dykstra but is terribly directed.

The Glass Menagerie is the story of the Wingfield family in the South, struggling to make ends meet after being abandoned by the patriarch: the father to Tom and Laura, husband to Amanda. The children are grown now and so the role of breadwinner falls to Tom, who feels shackled by his family responsibilities, stuck in a low-paying job he hates, wanting desperately to escape, to have adventures, and to write. Laura is a shy cripple, who spends her days wandering the city and caring for her glass menagerie – a collection of small glass animal figurines – rather than learning a trade so that she can support herself. All of this worries their mother, Amanda, who lives in constant fear that Tom will abandon them just like his father, and that, left to fend for herself, Laura will fail, and remain always hopelessly dependent on others. The characters all speak in a Southern drawl, flawless enough that it helps give the language the right sound adding to the performances.

Dysktra’s rendition of The Glass Menagerie is done with a surprising amount of levity for a Tennessee Williams play, which is not to say it lacks Williams’s trademark bleakness. Amanda (Nancy Palk) is the real star of the play, delivering her nostalgic dialogue and complaints in a light and over-the-top fashion which is incontrovertibly funny. Palk often talks about the gentleman callers of her youth with such vanity that the tone is humourous rather than full of loss. And it works.

In the beginning of the play, Tom speaks to the audience to explain that “The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.’” And yet Dykstra’s production feels very immediate. The dialogue flows impeccably to the point that I remained so utterly engaged that I would forget that this was a memory play, Tom’s memory. The only reminder that the events were supposed to be memories was the fact that the actor playing Tom, Stuart Hughes, is too old to be the Tom in the unfolding action. Part of the realism comes from the fantastic set which gives us both the interior and exterior of the apartment the family inhabits. The interior is especially good and the characters move comfortably in it, which kept me completely convinced that this was a real home. But the fact that the play feels so realistic – despite its being a memory play – is hardly something I can complain about in the production, though I worry that some of the nuance of the text may be lost because of it.

What most impressed me about the production was how radically and masterfully the tone and pacing changed through the three parts of the play. It begins with despair and little hope. The characters talk slowly and keep their distance from each other in the physical space; the action moves slowly, too. As soon as a gentleman caller for Laura becomes a real possibility – Tom asks a friend from work to dinner – the characters light up, the energy on-stage increases, the lines delivered more quickly and excitedly, and the physical distance between these unhappy characters decreases. The pacing of the action and the hopefulness in the tone wonderfully tells us just what an important symbol of hope the gentleman caller really is. And when everything blows up as it must – this is a Tennessee Williams play – the tension and the bleakness of the situation seem audible and can be physically felt: everything slows down and becomes pregnant with pauses.

While Dykstra’s direction was a triumph in The Glass Menagerie, it is a trainwreck in his one-act show, The Kreutzer Sonata. The Kreutzer Sonata is a play adapted from the short story of the same name by Leo Tolstoy, which, itself, is inspired by the Beethoven duet for piano and violin, the “Kreutzer Sonata”. It tells the story of a husband who becomes consumed with jealousy and rage when his wife plays Beethoven’s “Kreutzer Sonata” with another man that he murders her. The wife and other man play with whom she plays Beethoven’s “Kreutzer Sonata”. Ted Dykstra plays the enraged husband, who tells us the story of the events leading up to and including the murder of his wife, of which he is ultimately acquitted, since it was provoked, supposedly, by adultery.

It’s a one-hour show during which Dykstra sits in a red armchair, sipping a glass of water throughout the entire performance. Dykstra is convincing as the husband and successfully takes us on his journey of emotional turmoil, engaging throughout. The trouble with the play is that it lacks context. In fact, it’s staged in such a way that he looks just like the host of Masterpiece Theatre. To whom is he talking to? Is this a monologue to himself, as he works through his issues? It can’t be since he seems to be talking to someone? Does he think he is in front of an audience, addressing us directly, like Richard III would do? Is he confiding in a friend from the comfort of his armchair at home? This seems unlikely given the frequency of private intimate moments that he experiences throughout the telling. The reason why he is telling his story and to whom are completely unclear, which means the production ultimately fails. And the fact that it’s full of misogyny – an insane and enraged husband gets away with murder because he is right to think that women should be assumed adulterous and evil and deserve to be beaten and die for it – only fuels my distaste for the play.

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