Most everyone who’s attended a high-school English class is familiar with “The Glass Menagerie,” playwright Tennessee Williams’ iconic “memory” play about Amanda Wingfield, an obsessively doting mother, and the love-hate relationship she has with her two children, the mentally and physically ill Laura, and her chronically frustrated and unsatisfied son Tom.
A mainstay of school and community theater companies for almost 75 years, one can make the case that it’s been “done to death,” and needs to go into hibernation like those Disney DVDs that periodically disappear into the studio’s “vault” in wait for a new generation.
On the other hand, it’s hard to keep a good play down. “Menagerie” will receive a Broadway revival in September with Cherry Jones as Amanda. Zachary Quinto as Amanda’s son, Tom, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Amanda’s daughter, Laura, and Brian J. Smith as Jim, Laura’s gentleman caller.
But no matter how good a script may be, without the star power of a Tony Award winner (Jones), nominee (Keenan-Bolger), or a big-screen “Vulcan” (Quinto), there comes a time when a theater producer knows to just “give it a rest.”
But Jerry Lee, a lauded local actor looking to augment his résumé with experience as a producer as well as a full-length directorial credit, selected a route several Sacramento-area producers have recently taken when mounting all-too-familiar Shakespearean titles: he picked a parody.
His choice? Ryan Landry’s “The Plexiglass Menagerie,” a comedy of bad manners set in a FEMA trailer in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans that happens to feature an all-male cast. The show, which opened last weekend at the William J. Geery Theater under the auspices of SacImpulse, plays at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through July 27.
“I’ve always wanted to play Tom,” said Lee during a pre-opening day filled with scenic design touch-ups, tech adjustments and costume fittings. “But I think I’m a little too old to play that role now.”
And having just closed Sacramento Theatre Company’s world premiere production of “A Little Princess,” in which he played the decidedly sincere (and more-than-a-little-serious Capt. Crewe), it was important to change things up a bit.
Of course, nothing says metamorphosis like a strapping male actor donning a dress (with heels) and wig, sashaying around the stage like a victim of bipolar disorder who’s taken one-too-many diet pills.
“Originally, I had rented this space for another show, but it was unavailable this summer,” explained Lee. “I was going to do an evening of music but was afraid I wouldn’t be able to sustain it for a month. My whole thing this summer was about learning to self-produce, and ultimately was looking for a challenging, funny piece that would fit into this space in the middle of July.”
An Internet search turned up Landry’s twisted, comedic take on “Menagerie.” Lee confessed that the title alone got him chuckling like a kid reading Mad magazine for the first time.
“I was just dying,” Lee said. “All of Landry’s plays that he’s written for his Boston-based troupe, the Gold Dust Orphans, have titles that are just so funny. (They include “Mildred Fierce,” a takeoff on “Mildred Pierce,” and “Pussy on the House,” a sendup of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”)
“After I read ‘Menagerie,’ I knew I had to do this play. I said to myself, ‘Yep, this is it.’”
Still sure that Tom was no longer the right character for him to play – even if it was a comedy – he turned his attention toward matriarch Amanda Wingfield.
“I became excited about laying Amanda,” Lee continued. “The script was really strong and I could identify with her character.”
Like Dorothy on the yellow brick road to Oz, Lee assembled a cast of crazies to populate his “Menagerie”: Logan Heller (Laura Wingfield); John Ross (Tom Wingfield); and Will Finan (Jim Goldberg). He also recruited the best offstage personnel he knew: Maggie Hollinbeck (assistant director) and Mariam Helalian (production stage manager).
“I’ve known Logan for several years,” said Lee. “He also went to the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Santa Maria. I’d seen Will in a few different things. He was so funny and charming I thought he’d be perfect as Jim. And John’s a comedian I knew through a mutual friend. I was excited at the prospect of him doing this; I wanted this to be fun and exciting, and I thought for his first show this would be perfect for a first foray outside of stand-up comedy.”
“And Maggie is like our camp counselor and show doctor,” he continued. “When she came in she took it so much further than I could have while also being on stage. She’s so funny, always asking just-the-right hypotheticals – ‘What if this happened here?’”
Lee, who admitted to being a bit fatigued by all of the work that goes into producing, directing and starring in a stage production, added that the experience has been “full of surprises,” but also “very exciting.”
“I’ve been loving it,” said Lee, whose next project is playing the title role in “Shrek: The Musical” for Walnut Creek’s Diablo Theatre Company. “This is another step for me. I’m not really seeking out any other big directorial projects right now, I just wanted to to learn more about working with people and becoming a better theater professional.”
JUST THE FACTS
WHAT: The SacImpulse production of "The Plexiglass Menagerie" by Ryan Landry (based on "The Glass Menagerie" by Tennessee Williams)
WHERE: The William J. Geery Theater, 2130 L St., Sacramento, Calif.
WHEN: Plays 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays July 5-27
WHO: Directed by Jerry Lee and Maggie Hollinbeck; featuring Jerry Lee (Amanda Wingfield), Logan Heller (Laura Wingfield), John Ross (Tom Wingfield), Will Finan (Jim Goldberg)
HOW MUCH: $19.99-$23; for tickets, click here
FOR MORE INFO: call (916) 749-6039
Editor’s note: Every Thursday we deliver a local event guide straight to your inbox, right on time to make your weekend plans. Sign me up.