If Dan Schmid had to put a label on “The Glass Menagerie,” it would be “Fragile: Handle with Care.”
That’s just what the director plans to do when the Looking Glass Playhouse presents the Tennessee Williams classic play this weekend and next in Lebanon.
“It’s tough to direct a show that’s so well known,” Schmid said. “You can’t take liberties because people have these characters locked in their minds.”
But the director thinks he has a winning formula: Keep the set minimalist and let his fine cast mold their flawed but loving characters into people the audience cares about.
“I’ve seen productions that have whole rooms, but we have just one wall,” Schmid said. “Lighting and set are as unobtrusive as possible to allow people to project their own interpretation into the scene. Sometimes, it’s dark and hazy even. It’s a character-driven show.
“People can relate to it because it’s about a family, each member struggling with themselves and with each other. Everyone knows a guy in a dead-end job, a woman abandoned by her husband.”
“The Glass Menagerie” is a the haunting tale of the Wingfield family. It’s told through the memories of Tom Wingfield (Colin Dowd), who is caught between love for his sister, Laura (Joanna Ferbrache), and the need to escape his oppressive family surroundings.
Laura is a shy, fragile young woman who would rather care for her collection of glass animals than develop a social life. The household is thrown into a tizzy when their mother (Rachel Mullis) asks Tom to bring home a nice, young man Jim (Benjamin Hopkins) to meet Laura.
Dan, 33, of Collinsville, is a claims assistant with an insurance company in Edwardsville. He feels especially comfortable directing these characters because he played Tom in a 2004 McKendree College production of “The Glass Menagerie.”
“I want people to feel the love they have for each other,” he said. “They each want what’s best for them and what’s best for each other, and coming to terms with those not always being the same things. It’s about sacrificing what you want for the good of the family.”
Tom is a very difficult character, Dan said.
“He could easily be seen as a brat if he is played as completely selfish. But Colin lets his self-doubt and conflict shine through. Colin dove head-first into Tom.”
Colin, 24, of St. Louis and formerly of Edwardsville, has been acting for 19 years, and this is his fourth or fifth role at the Looking Glass.
“This is by far the most complex role,” said Colin, who is in sales with Scholastic Book Fairs. “I try to bring out the humanity in Tom, make him more realistic and relatable.”
Tom is an aspiring poet who toils in a shoe warehouse to support his mother, Amanda, and his cripplingly shy sister, Laura.
“Tom is forced to make decisions while he feels trapped. Sometimes he has to make selfish decisions so he doesn’t go crazy and the family doesn’t go crazy.”
Joanna Ferbrache, 23, of St. Louis, plays Laura.
“She is a vulnerable, fragile wallflower,” Dan said. “Joanna does a lot with just a look. Her hands and her eyes show exactly what Laura is feeling at any moment.
“Joanna has a lot of physical cues in scenes where she appears withdrawn. She is so good at it, sometimes you lose track of her in a scene. I’ll be watching Tom and Amanda arguing and all of a sudden I look over and, ‘Oh, there she is. She looks so sad.’”
Joanna majored in communication theater and early childhood education at Summit University of Pennsylvania in Clarks Summit. She is based in St. Louis, but she has been traveling a lot, performing in plays, musicals, improv, show tours and renaissance festivals. She also sings and plays piano.
How does she play a wallflower?
“First, I’m a very outgoing person,” Joanna said. “I have to create that outgoingness, then stuff it all inside of me. Laura keeps it all bottled up.
“In one scene where my brother and mother are yelling at each other, I feel myself about ready to explode — which is what an outgoing person would do. I cry instead. That can be done with the eyes welling up or a tear falling.”
This is Joanna’s first Looking Glass play and the first time playing Laura.
“I want people to see how it feels to keep things all bottled up. Laura loves in such a quiet manner. I hope people can see what’s under the surface.
“Laura is scared of her mother. Even though the family is broken, Laura is the quiet piece that keeps the family together for as long as she can.”
Rachel Mullis has the role of Amanda. Originally from a genteel Southern family who is trapped in her own past, Amanda regales her children with tales of her idyllic youth and the scores of suitors who once pursued her. She wants the same for her daughter.
“Rachel impressed me right from auditions with her southern storytelling charm,” said Dan. “She approaches the role with a sweeping ‘Gone With the Wind’ nature. But she can still pull out her angry mom voice when she wants to.”
The chemistry between the three has been there from the beginning.
“They feel like a family,” Dan said “They know how to push each other’s buttons.”
Colin feels the chemistry, too.
“We get along so well off stage that we really connect on stage,” he said. “I hope the audience feels that, too.”
What does the director hope the audience takes away from “The Glass Menagerie”?
“There’s no way around it, there’s a lot of sadness in the show,” Dan said. “But it’s a bittersweet tragedy in the end.
“It’s not depressing. No one is a villain. I want people to ‘get’ that the family tries so hard to meet in the middle even though it doesn’t come. The message is: You can’t give up. You have to keep those family connections alive.”
“I just hope it makes people think — about social insecurities and family dynamics. Maybe it won’t change anybody’s life, but it should spark some conversations on the way home.”
At a glance
- What: “The Glass Menagerie
- Where: Looking Glass Playhouse, 301 W. St. Louis St., Lebanon
- When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and March 17-19; 2 p.m. Sunday and March 20
- Tickets: Thursday and Sunday shows, $10 adults; $9 60-plus, students and military. Friday and Saturday shows, $12 adults; $11 60-plus, students and military.