By TOM CHESEK
“I first saw this play when I was 16 years old. It’s what ruined my life!”
The speaker? Robert Rechnitz, retired educator, author and founder of Red Bank’s Two River Theater Company. The show in question? The Glass Menagerie, the classic “memory play” by Tennessee Williams that’s undergoing a major revival at the company’s eponymous playhouse on Bridge Avenue beginning next week.
Memory, of course, can be a tricky thing, but for the 77-year-old Rechnitz, the vivid recollection of that 1946 touring production one-nighter in Denver was a “eureka” moment that’s stayed with him through his life.
It’s what set the young son of Pueblo, Colorado on a course toward a career in the theater not as a matinee idol, but as a teacher, a writer, a director and, ultimately, a man who was able to stand before an opening night audience in 2005 and welcome them to an all new, custom-built performing arts auditorium named for his wife Joan and himself.
Rechnitz in person comes across not as an egomaniacal living monument but an avuncular chap who speaks in the patient, measured tones of the college professor that he was for much of his career. He’s someone who seeks not so much to “sell” his projects with a showman’s zazz, but to foster an understanding and appreciation of the plays he’s chosen to direct.
It goes without saying that each and every play he chooses holds a special place in his heart, and none more so than the 1944 Menagerie, the quasi-autobiographical work that ushered in a decades-long prime time for the then-unknown playwright Williams.
Set in 1930s St. Louis, the script sketches a study of a family paralyzed by frustration and disappointment. Mother Amanda’s a faded belle living off long-ago perceived glories, Dad’s a picture on the wall who deserted the clan years before, daughter Laura’s a so-called cripple with no employment or marital prospects, and son Tom (whose memory this is all filtered through) is a would-be artist stuck supporting his kin with a soul-killing factory job; a prematurely bitter guy who sees avenues of escape everywhere, but always manages to come sulking back home from those frequent trips to the movies. It’s a landmark drama that’s rife with symbolism, not to mention a generator of essay questions that have been the bane of high school English students for ages.
Rechnitz directed the play more than 10 years ago, in one of the earliest seasons of Two River Theater Company back when the company’s shows were staged at the Lauren K. Woods Theatre on the campus of Monmouth University. That 1997 production marked the first time that Rechnitz collaborated with a young stage manager named Gregg W. Brevoort, starting a working relationship that has endured through the history of Two River Theater, even taking into consideration the two directors’ professed “very different” styles (now a professional stage director based in Los Angeles, Brevoort has returned to New Jersey to rejoin Rechnitz as the show’s assistant director).
Here in 2008, Rechnitz believes that he has at his disposal the right cast, the perfect stage, and the technical wherewithal to merit a re-visit to the play that’s loomed so large in his life; with a staging that fulfills his concept of “trying to make this a ‘memory play’ in every sense…’dimly lighted, sentimental, not realistic’ as Tom says.”
Although the director maintains that “I’m not doing anything more than what Williams set out to do,” he outlines a clear-cut mission to “make Tom’s presence as narrator more evident throughout,” and has cast Andrew Pastides (last seen at Two River in the 2006 Tartuffe) in the pivotal role. Letitia Lange co-stars as Laura, with William Connell appearing as Jim, a “gentleman caller” enlisted by Tom as a dinner date for his sister. Composer Robert Waldman (Broadway’s The Robber Bridegroom and many others) has been engaged to create an original music score for this production.
Maureen Silliman, an actress who’s appeared in Two River productions more than any other player (most recently in last year’s unorthodox revival of Our Town) stars here as family matriarch Amanda, a role that’s been essayed by no less than Katherine Hepburn, Maureen Stapleton, Gertrude Lawrence and Jessica Lange, among many others.
“This is one of those Lear-type roles,” the director maintains. “She gets it. It’s a very exciting process to watch.”
While Rechnitz has long represented the Two River company in the community at large, he increasingly shares the spotlight with Aaron Posner as Artistic Director in 2006 has put a fresh and dynamic new face on the company’s operations. In fact, TRTC scored its greatest accolades to date (and broke all previous box-office records) during the sold-out run of Macbeth, which Posner co-directed with world-famous illusionist Teller.
“Aaron has certainly filled every aspect of his job tremendously,” Rechnitz says of Posner, currently premiering his adaptation of Ken Kesey‘s Sometimes a Great Notion in his native Oregon. “He’s been absolutely great for us.
“Am I jealous of him? Sure, but not so much on the professional level as… well, he’s 42 years old, and I’m jealous of those 35 years!”
While we’re on the subject of years and memory, would this be an appropriate time to address talk that Menagerie may mark the company founder’s farewell to the director’s chair (something it seems we hear each and every year)?
“Each time I do this I get to thinking NEVER AGAIN,” Rechnitz laughs. “But then I think about all the plays I still want to do Hamlet, Twelfth Night, any major Shakespeare would be great.
“I’m healthy for my age, I’m happy, and I live six or seven minutes away from the theater!” the company patriarch proclaims. “Should I just keep things open ended? Absolutely!”
Also on tap for the March 25-April 13 run of The Glass Menagerie is a series of free B4 Play pre-show discussions hosted by TRTC’s KJ Sanchez and Liz Green. An exhibit of “memory boxes” created by Two River staff and local artists will be on display in the atrium lobby for the duration of the show’s engagement.
Preview tickets for The Glass Menagerie are priced at $20 each, and regular show prices range from $32 (for Wednesday matinees) to $56 (for Saturday nights). For reservations, available dates and info on group discounts and specially enhanced performances, take it here.