'Menagerie': Modern visual twist on an American classic

‘The Glass Menagerie’ set, still under construction, will appear to be floating, an effect enhanced by the removal of the Ricketson Theatre’s usual stage floor. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Chances are you’ve seen Tennessee Williams’ fragile and fractured classic The Glass Menagerie, one of the most beloved American plays of the past 70 years. The challenge for Director Ina Marlowe’s design team is to make sure you’ve never seen a Glass Menagerie like the one that opens the Theatre Company’s 2016-17 season with its first preview performance Sept. 9.

“It’s the kind of title that might make you say, ‘Oh, that again,’” said DCPA Theatre Company Director of Lighting Charles MacLeod. “But we are giving it a modern visual twist. And if we do a great job, people will want to come and see it.”

The Glass Menagerie is a memory play, meaning the narrator tells us his story based on Tom’s personal (and therefore unreliable) recollections of his overbearing mother, Amanda, and fragile sister, Laura. But as is often the case from barroom tales to history books, what you see on stage may not be an accurate recounting of what actually happened.

“I come from a large family, and everybody remembers things differently,” MacLeod said. “There are things I don’t remember at all, but my sisters can recall with vivid detail.”

MacLeod, along with Marlowe and scenic designer Joe Tilford, have devised two primary visual innovations for this staging in The Ricketson Theatre, both based on the unreliability of memory.

“Memories can be said to float in your mind’s eye,” said MacLeod. “So what Joe has created is an isolated floor that will appear to float.”

The actors’ playing space will be relatively small — 18 by 18 feet and made up of 81 individually lit squares not unlike a checkerboard. The floor will be slightly angled, allowing more of it to be seen by the audience than if it were flat. The stage floor surrounding the main floor is 3 feet lower than usual to enhance the illusion of suspension. That will make the surrounding area look like a black void.

“The floor is made up of a milk Plexiglas,” said MacLeod. “When it’s not lit up, it will provide reflection. When it is lit up, we can visually isolate specific areas — not only from above, but also from below. So let’s say we are at the dinner table and Laura is down on the day bed. We can light up just that corner of that floor where Laura is and give it just as much importance as the conversation that is going on at the dinner table.”

Glass Menagerie Lighting floorBut the crowning achievement of this staging might be the titular menagerie itself. In most stagings of the play, Laura’s precious glass figurines are small and sequestered to a stationary table. Marlowe’s menagerie will be magical.

“Our menagerie is pretty unconventional,” MacLeod said. “It will be made up of nearly 30 individually suspended glass pieces that Laura can walk in and out of as if she’s surrounded by a floating cloud of memory. The pieces will be side-lit because we really want to highlight the glass itself.”

The playing area will be framed to the left and right with gritty fire escapes. That’s part of the designers’ intentional overall contrast of hard lines and soft edges — like the laciness of Laura versus the hardness of the outside world.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

The overall effect, MacLeod hopes, will be to make this classic American play feel much more accessible and immediate to younger theatregoers, especially high school and middle schoolers. “If we can make this world visually interesting,” he said, “I think that immediately gets you into the meat of the great words the actors are saying on stage.”

To achieve that vision, MacLeod asks that you simply imagine Laura standing in the middle of this underlit floor, silhouetted by light and surrounded by her fully illuminated menagerie cloud.

“In my mind,” MacLeod said, “that’s an interesting visual image that says, ‘I gotta see this play.’ ”

Photos above right: The milk Plexiglass floor, and what each individual light box looks like from the inside. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Photos: The making of The Glass Menagerie in Denver:

'The Glass Menagerie' in Denver
To seem more photos in our gallery, click the forward arrow on the image above. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

The Glass Menagerie: Ticket information
• Sept. 9-Oct. 16
• Ricketson Theatre
• ASL interpreted, Audio-described and Open Captioned performance: Oct. 15
• Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
• Groups: Call 303-446-4829

Selected previous NewsCenter coverage of The Glass Menagerie:

2016-17 season: Nine shows, two world premieres, return to classics
Kent Thompson on The Bard, The Creature and the soul of his audience
Casting set for The Glass Menagerie
First rehearsal: This will be no wimpy Glass Menagerie
Meet the cast: Amelia Pedlow as Laura Wingfield