Maternal Instincts Gone Wild

Musical comedy fans know that, during its difficult out-of-town tryout in Detroit, the working title for Jerry Herman's most famous musical was Dolly: A Damned Exasperating Woman. Based on Thornton Wilder's1955 hit, The Matchmaker, the origin story of Hello, Dolly! dates back to a one-act play by John Oxenford entitled A Day Well Spent (1835), which Johann Nestroy developed into a full-length play entitled Einen Jux will er sich machen in 1842.

In 1938 (more than 100 years after Oxenford's one-act farce made its debut), Wilder adapted the story into The Merchant of Yonkers. Some 15 years later, the story took on new life as its focus shifted from The Merchant of Yonkers (Horace Vandergelder) to an enterprising widow who kept herself afloat by meddling in other peoples' affairs.

Following its success at the Edinburgh Festival and in London's West End, The Matchmaker opened on Broadway on December 5, 1955 with Ruth Gordon in the title role. In 1958, a film adaptation starring Shirley Boothwas released. Six years later, on January 16, 1964, Carol Channing took the St. James Theatre by storm in Hello, Dolly! The musical's opening scene told audiences what to expect and what kind of woman would guide them on their adventure.

The theatre has a rich history filled with women who were forced to take matters into their own hands. Whether based on such historical characters as Joan of Arc, Anna Leonowens, and Gypsy Rose Lee'sincorrigible monster of a stage mother or numerous fictional women like Bertolt Brecht's amoral war profiteer (Mother Courage), some women struggled to eke out a living any way they could -- even if it meant popping pussies into pies!

Some luxuriated in the adoring glances of their children while others became master manipulators.

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When The Glass Menagerie premiered in Chicago in 1944, it introduced audiences to a desperate single mother struggling to get through the Great Depression while living in a dingy tenement in St. Louis; a woman who spends much of her time onstage nagging her two adult children. For the first time in its 43-year history, the California Shakespeare Theater is staging one of the most famous plays written by Tennessee Williams. Under the direction of Lisa Portes, CalShakes has given his 73-year-old memory play a new look, new sense of vitality, and cast the drama so that it challenges the audience in new and interesting ways.

  • Performed without an intermission, this staging of The Glass Menagerie travels along a more fluid dramatic arc than most traditional (and seemingly realistic) productions.
  • Because the Bruns Amphitheatre is an outdoor venue, Annie Smart's deceptively simple unit set frames the playing area like a diorama, with ramps on either side of the stage that allow Tom and his mother to push pieces of furniture into the Wingfield family's apartment. In other moments, Amanda and Laura sit in areas that would normally be designated as the wings (as in "wing field") of a proscenium stagehouse.
  • Unlike productions set on proscenium stages, the open-air setting on the wide stage at CalShakes abolishes the stifling sense of claustrophobia that usually grips the Wingfield family.
Karen Aldridge (Amanda) and Sean San Jose (Tom) in a scene from <strong><em>The Glass Menagerie</em></strong>
Karen Aldridge (Amanda) and Sean San Jose (Tom) in a scene from The Glass Menagerie

As Tom tells the audience: “Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” In this production there may be a hidden meaning to Tom's use of the word "tricks."

  • The actor playing Tom (Sean San José) is called upon to deliver an extremely restless and energetic performance as he hustles around the stage while rearranging furniture and runs out into the audience when exiting the family's apartment.
  • Because it's no longer a secret that Tom is a dramatic representation of Tennessee Williams (and that The Glass Menagerie was written at a time when most gay men led closeted lives), it's perfectly logical to assume that Tom isn't going to late night movies just because he's a cinephile or trying to escape from a suffocating mother who constantly hovers over him. In all likelihood, he's haunting a theatre where gay men cruise the balcony and men's room in search of furtive sexual connections. He may even be collecting "tricks" in his pocket of late night memories of the time he spent in St. Louis.
  • In her program note, dramaturg Philippa Kelly points to the angry reaction of Tom's respectability-obsessed mother upon finding a book by D. H. Lawrence in her home ("I took that horrible novel back to the library -- yes! That hideous book by that insane Mr. Lawrence. I cannot control the output of diseased minds or people who cater to them -- but I won't allow such filth brought into my house! No, no, no, no, no!) and asks: "What is it about the early 20th-century British writer that so revolts Amanda? The whiff of sexual ambiguity? The loving detail with which he describes male bodies? Relationships that flagrantly flaunt class boundaries? Any or all of these could be powerful triggers for a woman whose dreams and ambitious are polished by the gleaming Southern ideals of propriety."
  • When Tom brings a "Gentleman Caller" home for dinner, they make an arm-in-arm entrance down one of the theatre's aisles, walking in a slow-motion strut that highlights their masculine sensuality and perhaps even frames a romantic vision Tom might have of going out on a date with another man (which gives new credence to his assertion that he had absolutely no idea that his friend, Jim, was engaged to be married to a woman).
Rafael Jordan (The Gentleman Caller) and Sean San Jose (Tom) in a scene from <strong><em>The Glass Menagerie</em></strong>
Rafael Jordan (The Gentleman Caller) and Sean San Jose (Tom) in a scene from The Glass Menagerie

As with Sam Gold's recent Broadway production of The Glass Menageriethat shocked audiences by featuring a disabled actor (Madison Ferris) in the role of Laura, the CalShakes production has cast Phoebe Fico (a playwright, poet, and disability rights activist) as Tom's physically and emotionally crippled sister. Unfortunately, for much of Fico's performance, I found myself wondering why her acting was so lifeless and her voice almost dead. Could it be a lack of professional training as an actor? Or the fact that a flattened affect and voice are frequently symptoms of clinical depression.

Karen Aldridge, Rafael Jordan, and Phoebe Fico in a scene from <strong><em>The Glass Menagerie</em></strong>
Karen Aldridge, Rafael Jordan, and Phoebe Fico in a scene from The Glass Menagerie

Without doubt, the most important difference in this production lies in the casting of Karen Aldridge in the pivotal role of Amanda. As director Lisa Portes explains:

“All of my work puts women or people of color or women of color at the center -- it’s just part of my personal mission as a Latinadirector, moving stories of women and people of color to the center. When I started thinking of The Glass Menagerie, I began to imagine who Amanda might be. The tradition of African-American debutantes dates back to the turn of the last century (early 1900s), so I began to think she could exist as an African-American woman. Our cultural brainpan mistakenly associates color with class, and assumes that color always signifies working class, poor, impoverished. Elite African-American culture has existed primarily invisibly since the late 1800s. It’s important to know that, yes, an African-American Amanda Wingfield who came from an elite upper-class community in the South in the 1910s is absolutely viable. She came from an elite family in the South, ran off with the wrong guy, and now finds herself a single mother in St. Louis in the middle of the Depression. That puts her under even greater pressure to try to set things right. I became interested in her husband being Mexican because, as described, he leaves them all and runs off to Mexico. The idea of that coupling, and the children that came out of that relationship, became very interesting to me.”
Karen Aldridge (Amanda) and Rafael Jordan (The Gentleman Caller) in a scene from <strong><em>The Glass Menagerie</em></strong
Karen Aldridge (Amanda) and Rafael Jordan (The Gentleman Caller) in a scene from The Glass Menagerie
“In terms of telling the story, I’m interested in who has access, who belongs, who is trying to find their way in a world that is often hostile to who they actually are. Amanda is dreaming of past glory. Laura miniaturizes herself into a world where a unicorn lives with horses and they all get along perfectly. Tom is dreaming of a world where he can be who he is. All of them are dreaming of a world in which they can be their authentic selves (Laura has a disability, Tom is gay), but who they are doesn’t fit the American Dream. There’s no place for any of them in the world that they live in.”
Rafael Jordan (The Gentleman Caller) and Phoebe Fico (Laura) in a scene from <strong><em>The Glass Menagerie</em></strong>
Rafael Jordan (The Gentleman Caller) and Phoebe Fico (Laura) in a scene from The Glass Menagerie

With costumes by Raquel Barreto, lighting by Xavier Pierce, and sound design by Brendan Aanes, this new production asks the audience to relinquish any preconceived notions they might have about The Glass Menagerie and experience this American classic through a radically different prism. Unfortunately, by the time Laura was left alone with her Gentleman Caller and the lighting dimmed so that they seemed isolated in the summer night (Tom has neglected to pay the family's electric bill), the production had lost a great deal of dramatic momentum.

Karen Aldridge's portrayal of Amanda delivered a younger and more vital Amanda than I've ever seen (this is a woman who reacts to her son's "selfishness" with more anger than resignation). Sean San José's frantic Tom was much less wistful and decidedly more defiant than in many productions. Unfortunately, there was precious little magic in the crucial, but mechanically acted scene between Rafael Jordan's Jim (the Gentleman Caller) and Phoebe Fico's Laura. In the end, Tom's sister showed no interest in blowing out her candles, causing one of the most poetic moments in Williams's script to evaporate into the night air.

Rafael Jordan (The Gentleman Caller) and Phoebe Fico (Laura) in a scene from <strong><em>The Glass Menagerie</em></strong>
Rafael Jordan (The Gentleman Caller) and Phoebe Fico (Laura) in a scene from The Glass Menagerie

Performances of The Glass Menagerie continue through July 30 at the Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda (click here for tickets).

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Where Amanda Wingfield keeps trying to control her children's lives, Rachel Segall has taken a very different approach to the future by offering her womb as a temporary breeding ground for one of her closest friends from Bates College (class of '91). In The Guys Next Door(which will be screened as part of the 2017 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival), Rachel is a happily married social worker in her mid forties with three biological children of her own who has generously offered to serve as a surrogate for a gay couple that wants to raise a family.

Erik Mercer is a self-employed licensed clinical social worker with a specialty in mitigation, whose Italian-American husband, Sandro Sechi, is a language teacher and writer from Sardinia who speaks five languages. By offering her good friends the use of her healthy uterus, Rachel (whose insurance covered the cost of the pregnancy) is not only helping to bring two new lives into the world, she is also helping Erik and Sandro bypass a complicated maze of legal and financial hurdles which could easily bring a gay couple's parenting plans to a sudden halt.

In an era when conservative Republicans would like to strip women of any control of their bodies (especially their reproductive systems), Rachel offers a glowing example of what can happen when a woman chooses an unusual path that will bring joy to others. Between Rachel and Tony Hurley's brood -- and Erik, Sandro, and their two daughters (Rachel Maria and Eleanora) -- these people have a created an extended family whose structure is vastly different from the heteronormative American nuclear family that dominated the cultural landscape back in the 1950s.

While Erik and Sandro are the legal parents of their daughters, their surrogate feels no sense of ownership with regard to the two young girls she has delivered for her gay friends because these children were created using donated eggs. Rachel's biological children (Zeke, Jordy, and Maddie) have borne witness to their mother's surrogate pregnancies and consider Rachel Maria and Eleanora to be part of their world. With the kind of candor typical of a young boy, Zeke casually explained the situation to a stranger one day by saying “You see my mom? She’s pregnant for her gay friends. And it’s not even her egg!”

Sandro, Eleanora, Rachel, Tony, Erik, and Rachel Marie in the hospital room following Eleanora's birth
Sandro, Eleanora, Rachel, Tony, Erik, and Rachel Marie in the hospital room following Eleanora's birth

Amy Geller and Allie Humenuk's fascinating documentary (which was filmed over a three-year period) begins when Rachel (who lives in Newton Highlands, Massachusetts) is eight months pregnant with Eleanora. Erik and Sandro are busily preparing to leave their Brooklyn apartment (where they have been raising Rachel Maria) and move to Portland, Maine so they can be closer to Erik's family. While Erik's work can keep him on the road for several weeks at a time, Sandro, who is the more domestic partner, can easily work from home.

The Guys Next Door is a fascinating (and often poignant) demonstration of how new definitions of family keep evolving in our modern world. One can't help but be moved by Erik and Sandro's devotion to their daughters, Tony's support of his wife, and Rachel's compassion and generosity. Here's the trailer.

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