Penn State Players' actors, director thrilled to get chance at 'Glass Menagerie'
When he first read Tennessee Williams' classic, “The Glass Menagerie,” in his high-school days at Springdale in the late 1960s, Bill Mitas says he “was totally blown away” by the script.
He found it “so poetic, so dramatic” and could not wait to be in a production.
“Tennessee Williams, to me, was very cool,” he remembers thinking.
Flash forward to the early 1980s, and Mitas performed the role of Tom, the son, in the New Kensington Civic Theatre's presentation of “Menagerie.” He later directed a production at Springdale High School in 1989.
Now he revisits the drama, revolving around a domineering mother, an extroverted son and introverted daughter, for the Penn State (New Kensington) Players, directing “The Glass Menagerie” from Thursday through Saturday in the campus' Forum Theatre. It is considered, by many, to be autobiographical.
“Anyone who loves theater has to enjoy this production. It is a classic piece of American theater. The story and the characters are timeless. The language is powerful,” Mitas says. “Our production has a great cast (a blend of regional and student actors). I think the audience is going to love their work.”
His approach as director is to let the script play itself out, telling his actors not to act, but to let the language of the play direct the characters.
It is excellent advice, says theater veteran Pam Farneth of New Kensington. “Williams has written a very powerful piece. The words are very lyrical,” she says. “If you truly listen to the words, there is no need for adding anything that isn't there. The piece is perfect just as it is.”
She is elated to have the role of the mother, Amanda Wingfield, a faded Southern belle abandoned by her husband and who is trying to raise her two children under harsh financial conditions. She sees it as one of modern American drama's most coveted female roles. Katharine Hepburn and Jessica Tandy are among luminaries who have portrayed Wingfield.
“To be asked to play a role that so many legendary women have played is a complete honor and pleasure for me,” Farneth says.
“Tennessee Williams has the ability to breathe life and passion into his characters and, let's face it, the man was a brilliant and prolific playwright. Who wouldn't jump at the chance to be in one of his plays. I'm taken aback at just how brilliant the words of Tennessee Williams are, and I think the audiences will be, too.”
Amanda's character is very complex, she says.
“She lives in a world that fluctuates between illusion and reality, and it is often hard to tell which is illusion and which is reality,” Farneth says.
Mitas says Farneth gives the role the energy and sensitivity that it requires. “This has been great for my students (he teaches the Theater Practicum class at Penn State), to work with an accomplished actress.”
He also brought aboard Josh Milan of Greensburg as Jim, the ambitious Gentleman Caller, who just completed playing the same role in Trafford's Theatre Factory production of the drama.
“Both Pam and Josh are seasoned performers with many credits,” Mitas says. “This has worked out really well over the years. These students get to work with experienced actors, and they learn a great deal from watching these dedicated professionals.”
This is a regular collaboration that Mitas forged with New Kensington Civic Theatre, of which he is a veteran member, sharing talents and resources, especially on larger productions such as the Civic Theatre's “Frankenstein” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
Milan says he was happy to accept the part with Penn State. “It's amazing how different two versions can be, yet how they can both succeed in their own way,” he says. “Bill Mitas is an extremely intelligent and insightful director.”
Milan says he appreciates the honesty of this show, and “how the common themes of life translate over centuries.”
It is a life saga, with a universal theme, he says.
“The relevancy to today is somewhat disturbing, with our own national economic difficulties, just as in the show. So, the desperation really hits home, and most people will be able to relate to the fragile state of emotion that is ‘The Glass Menagerie.'”
The audience can appreciate the family dynamic of the show, says Chris Capo of New Kensington, a sophomore studying chemical engineering, and who plays Tom Wingfield, the son.
“Tom is a working man who is stuck in a situation, and he just wants to escape. He finds his release in the movies and drinking, which leads to conflicts in the family,” he says. “This still has relevance today in the sense that we all go through situations that are not ideal to us, but we can change those situations and make the best of them.”
Freshman animal-science major Kylee Danko of New Kensington finds “Menagerie” “a beautiful play.” She was drawn to the production's power and emotional depth.
Danko plays Laura Wingfield, a character who has been left with a limp because of a childhood illness. Because of that, she has an inferiority complex that has caused her to be isolated from the outside world. She has created a world of her own symbolized by her collection of glass animal figurines.
“I am hoping that I can touch the audience's hearts,” she says.
Mitas hopes the play gives those who see it a better appreciation of how fragile our lives can be.
“We are reminded that life and its comforts are so fragile and things can change in an instant,” he adds. “One simple decision can change everything. This is a timeless message.”
Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or firstname.lastname@example.org