T he Green Mountain College Theater Department’s fall presentation of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie is more than the typical student production. While GMC students play most of the lead roles, the show represents a collaboration with a professional director, actress and set designer that sets a new standard for the GMC players.
Eric Peterson, artistic director for Oldcastle Theatre Company in Bennington, Vt., is directing the play. Students are also learning the ropes from veteran set designer Bill Aupperlee who has done set work for the Dorset Theater Festival at the Dorset Playhouse for the past 25 years. Students also get to play opposite their mentor—professor Paula Mann—in a stage role.
A professional actress since 1980, Mann is familiar to area residents for her many appearances in productions at both the Dorset Theatre Festival and Oldcastle Theatre. She is playing Amanda Wingfield, a woman trying to raise her children under harsh economic conditions in St. Louis during the Great Depression while wistfully hanging on to the gentility of the Old South.
“’In addition to the role of Amanda, there are three other important roles for young actors in their 20’s. This is a play that gives actors an opportunity to really explore the inner life of their characters,” Mann said. “With such meaty roles, we wanted to open the production to as many students as possible.”
So Mann and Peterson agreed to double cast the production. The role of Tom Wingfield will be shared by Chad Skiles ‘10 and Michael Shulman ’12, Laura is played by Lisa Much ’11 and Catherine Jockell ‘14, and Jim O’Conner, the “gentleman caller,” is played by Alex Ervin ’10 and Andrew Bullard ’14. (Each set of actors will alternate over the four performances November 12-14).
For Mann, who has taught and directed many of the cast members, it is a rare opportunity to play opposite her students on stage. “They all bring so much energy and enthusiasm, and they each have their own interpretation of their character,” Mann said. “I find I’m really playing two slightly different Amandas because the chemistry is different with each set of actors.”
Likewise, her students have fed off Mann’s own energy as an actress. “It’s been great working with Paula,” said Skiles. “It’s interesting to see her portray Amanda Wingfield—one of Williams’ most multilayered creations. She has moments where she evokes sympathy and others where she is downright hatable! It helps me think about the layers of my own character.”
As part of the preparation for the production, Aupperlee will teach a set design workshop for students in Mann’s theater workshop class and in technical director Ben Jankowski’s stagecraft course. Students will help reconfigure a set Aupperlee designed for a recent Oldcastle show Awake and Sing. Because the setting for the plays was so similar, Aupperlee suggested that the existing set, with a few modifications, would be perfect for The Glass Menagerie. “I thought recycling scenery also really represented the whole ecological mission of the College,” he said.
Aupperlee explains that the set designer’s role is more than simply creating a functional and realistic backdrop. “I like to talk with students about how designing scenery is another way of telling the playwright’s story through visual imagery,” he said.
The Glass Menagerie is a “memory play”—the narrative relies on Tom’s third-person recollections of life with his mother and sister, and he wanders in and out of the story. This lends a dreamlike quality to the play and Aupperlee’s plans for the set reflect the transitory nature of memory—some walls will be opaque, others will consist of lace patterns that suggest solidity but are largely transparent.
The Glass Menagerie plays in the Clara Hitchcock Fitzpatrick Jones Concert Hall at Ackley at GMC Friday, November 12 and Saturday, November 13, at 7 p.m. Matinees are presented Saturday and Sunday, November 13 and 14, at 2 p.m. The production is free for students and GMC faculty and staff, and $10 for the general public.