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Hearts of glass
The Collective Face brings a Tennessee Williams classic to the stage
Maggie Hart and Dandy Barrett in "The Glass Menagerie"

Amanda Wingfield, the family matriarch in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, is one of the holy grail roles for women in theater. “So much so,” says actress Dandy Barrett, “that if you look at the history of women who have played her, you will find quite an array of ladies, everybody from Katharine Hepburn to Joanne Woodward.”

Barrett is playing Amanda in the Collective Face production of The Glass Menagerie, opening this weekend at Muse Arts Warehouse.

It’s her third show for the fledging Savannah group, following Enchanted April and Frozen, and she’s chomping at the bit to play Amanda, one of Williams’ trademark faded Southern belles, a woman for whom sadness and tragedy have become second nature.

“I believe that Amanda is of an era, in a particular geographic locale,” Barrett says. “She was reared in the south, in the teens, and in my mind she was the daughter of an Episcopal minister. And she was reared to be a lady. She was not of the upper class South – her daddy was not a landowner – but I think Amanda always aspired to be that. And then was swept off her feet by a dashing telephone salesman.”

As The Glass Menagerie unspools, 16 years have gone by since Mr. Wingfield hit the road, leaving Amanda alone with two children to raise – headstrong Tom and his timid, crippled little sister Laura.

It’s Amanda’s desire for Laura to experience life outside her cloistered existence at home that drives The Glass Menagerie forward. A “gentleman caller” arrives, but things don’t turn out quite the way Amanda had hoped.

“Life has dealt her a great deal of difficulty,” Barrett points out. “The thing that I find interesting about her is that even though she has an aura of the southern woman who ‘wants to be taken care of,’ she is the proverbial steel magnolia. She is the iron fist in a velvet glove.”

Williams’ semi–autobiographical play takes its title from Laura’s prized collection of tiny glass animals. Like her, they’re fragile. Or are they?

Amanda, unknowingly, is smothering both Laura and Tom.

“In my view, she does that out of devotion to her children,” Barrett says. “Sometimes she has a funny way of showing it, and a funny way of expressing it, but do not we all?

“And that doesn’t mean that she does not, on occasion, find herself just overcome by life. And really wanting to just throw it all over. But she never does.”

Barrett arrived in Savannah in the fall of 2006, following her retirement from long and fruitful careers in business, government and media. Her first show here was Little Women for the City of Savannah, followed by a production of Agnes of God that was directed by David Poole, who would eventually co–found the non–profit Collective Face. Poole is directing The Glass Menagerie.

She had begun dabbling in community theater while living in Conecticut – which, because it’s just an hour outside New York City, seemed to have its own set of rules.

“In Connecticut then, and it’s probably still like this, many people were very conscious of their ‘place’ in life. Their status, so to speak.

“But in the theater, nobody asked you. Nobody cares where you work, nobody cares how much money you make or don’t make, nobody cares. It’s ‘Hi, this is the theater, what can you do? What can we do together?’ It’s a great leveler. And I like it that way.”

Next on Barrett’s “wish list” is the conniving Mrs. Venable in Williams’ twisted psychological drama Suddenly, Last Summer.

In the meantime, her Glass Menagerie co–stars are Maggie Hart as Laura, Jonathan Ashley Able as Jim, the gentleman caller, and Richie Cook as Tom. Cook’s character narrates the story – it’s what’s known as a “memory play.”

Poole has done a bit of finagling with the exposition. “We started with this very de–constructed idea and we’re building the play bit–by–bit,” the director says. “So our set moves and shifts and never stays stationary.

“We start off in a gigantic warehouse; Tom is going to write the great American play, because he is Tennessee Williams. And so he’s searching for his past, or trying to escape from it. And realizing to let go of his past, he has to remember every bit of it. Especially Laura, and his relationship with her.”

Although The Glass Menagerie is a perennial in the fertile garden of American dramas, Poole believes his timing is just about perfect.

“Why do we want to do these classic plays?” he says. “Is it because we want to revisit the past? Is it because they’re relevant to today?

“I have an idea about that. We’re going to be seeing a lot of Depression–era plays because of the economic status we’re in right now. So we’re trying to re–visit times that are very familiar. Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs is popping up everywhere. The most popular musical to produce right now is Annie.”

The Glass Menagerie

Where: Muse Arts Warehouse, 703D Louisville Road

When: At 8 p.m. Oct. 15, 16, 21, 22, 23, 28, 29; at 3 p.m. Oct. 17 and 30

Tickets: $15 adults, $12 seniors, $10 students and children