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Theater-film hybrid works for YSU’s ‘Glass Menagerie’

What used to be normal felt so strange.

Getting a ticket for a live theatrical production. Having to be in my seat at a specific time. Not being able to hit pause if nature called or if I wanted to check the Cleveland Indians score. A 15-minute intermission I couldn’t fast-forward through.

Then again, watching Youngstown State University’s production of “The Glass Menagerie” was nothing like normal. My seat was my couch. My seatmate was a 100-pound mutt, who at least was quiet, if not attentive, during the play.

But whether the stage was my television or YSU’s Spotlight Arena Theater, the quality of this presentation of Tennessee Williams’ classic drama was evident.

Director Matthew Mazuroski called it a theater-film hybrid in an interview last week, and it’s an apt description. This is far more ambitious than the Zoom-style productions other area theater companies have done since live performances were shut down in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is four actors in the same location interacting with one another on a set. Mazuroski relies on long, usually static camera shots, and he beautifully constructs some of the blocking with the camera in mind. And there is camera movement and the occasional quick cut, which has a greater impact because it stands out from the flow of the rest of the presentation.

Still, it feels very much like a theatrical production. The furniture and the costumes (by Katherine Garlick) reflect its 1930s setting, but the action takes place in a black box. That darkness highlights one of the most important elements of Todd Dicken’s set design — a photo of the patriarch of the Wingfield family, a telephone man “who fell in love with long distance” and abandoned his wife, Amanda (Molly Galano), and his children, Tom (Nate Montgomery) and Laura (Elise Vargo), 16 years ago.

That portrait looms like a ghost who continues to manipulate his family’s behavior. Amanda lives in the past, telling the same stories over and over of all the gentlemen callers she had to choose from as a southern belle, and making sure she’s never abandoned again by preying upon her children’s insecurities so they feel as trapped as she is.

Tom dreams of being a writer and having some adventures to inspire his tales. Amanda undercuts his writing and guilts him into staying in St. Louis until his sister finds a man to take care of her.

Laura has been convinced she’s damaged goods because of a brace she wore on her leg growing up. The painfully shy young woman retreats to an imaginary world of her glass animal collection and playing on an old Victrola the records her father left behind.

All of those simmering problems boil over when Tom brings Jim O’Connor (Mitchell Sharp), a co-worker and former classmate, home for dinner as a possible suitor for his sister.

I’ve seen productions where Laura is played with an exaggerated limp. Vargo plays her with no noticeable limitations. If anything, the choice makes Laura’s insecurities all the more tragic. The second act scene between Sharp and Vargo, as Jim slowly helps Laura shed a tiny bit of her insecurities, is touching and sweet … and all the more heart-wrenching when it’s short-lived.

There are some moments where the acting comes off as a little too theatrical for the camera, but the cast is uniformly strong. Galano is one of the area’s most talented actors, but it’s still hard to believe she was a late addition to the cast, considering how fully realized the portrayal is. And Montgomery really comes into his own as Tom when he starts to stand up to his mother.

We’ve all gotten spoiled with streaming entertainment, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. YSU’s “The Glass Menagerie” is worth making an appointment to see.

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