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Classic "Glass Menagerie" Returns to Cincinnati with NKU Actors Front and Center

In Tennessee Williams’s great "memory play" The Glass Menagerie, the Wingfield family is caught up in Williams’s favorite theme of illusion versus reality.

At New Edgecliff Theater, in Cincinnati's Northside neighborhood where the classic play runs Feb. 9 - 27, director Daryl Harris adds an extra layer to the drama, casting African-American actors, the younger performers all students at Northern Kentucky University, where Harris is on the theatre faculty and is a Fulbright specialist. His previous NET productions were Athol Fugard’s Master Harold…and the boys and David Mamet’s Race.

Will the family drama set in Depression-era St. Louis resonate differently told through an African-American lens: Matriarch Amanda, living in genteel poverty and surviving comforted by her memories of long-ago gentlemen callers and her desperate attempts to find one for her fragile daughter Laura; and son Tom, an aspiring poet who, like his long-absent father, would rather be anywhere but here?

Harris says the production’s consideration of “similarities and differences” will be “subtle”, and audiences can factor it or not. Menagerie has a long history of being staged with African-American or multi-ethnic casts – the first being a production by the Howard Players at Howard University in 1947.

NKU junior Talia Brown found it easy to connect with introverted Laura. “We both live in our own heads,” she said.

NKU senior Andrew Ornelas is Tom and he connects with his character’s desperation to see the world and not get stuck in a job he hates. That’s not likely for double-major Ornelas, who will graduate with bachelor of fine arts degrees in theatre and in creative writing.

Ornelas connects with Tom as a writer, too: they share a love for poetic language. “Being able to play a character who speaks so eloquently and so powerfully is truly a wonderful experience," he said. “I wish I could narrate my own past, so I’m pretty jealous of Tom there, but he lets me do it through him and his life. It’s cathartic."

He and his cast-mates agree that Menagerie is timeless. “The references and the culture may be outdated but the struggles of family and relationships, and those things crumbling under the pressure of lies, disappointment, anxiety, and never-fully realized goals and dreams lives on eternally in the hearts of any people.”

Ornelas doesn’t feel a particular resonance from the African-American cast, “because I think this is a story about family, not color of skin.”

After graduation, he’ll pursue his dream of auditioning for theatre and film/television, and start a directing career. He’s crossing his fingers that “something will come up” before graduation, in March when he attends the annual Southeastern Theatre Conference auditions.

“I also am working on a business plan that I think could be very useful coming up. So we’ll see where that goes!”

The NKU ensemble is completed by Landon Horton as Jim, lured to the Wingfield home as a would-be "gentleman caller" for Laura. Horton previously appeared at NET in Master Harold…and the Boys, directed by Harris, and was a stand-out on the NKU stage earlier this season in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, but his passion is playwriting, and he’ll graduate with that degree in the spring.

The Glass Menagerie, 7:30 p.m. through Feb. 25. New Edgecliff Theatre, The Hoffner Lodge, 4120 Hamilton Ave., Northside. Tickets $20, students $15, available at CincyTicket.com and 1-888-428-7311. For more information visit: www.newedgecliff.com.

Written by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts

Photo by Mikki Schaffner (provided)