Hope amid dysfunction
Jewish community members Gina Leon (above) and Michael Germant are both co-producers, as well as actors, in Island Productions’ The Glass Menagerie. (photo from Gina Leon)
Tennessee Williams is one of the giants of the American theatre. His 1944 four-actor play The Glass Menagerie, which catapulted him to fame, is about to open in Vancouver, produced by local theatrical troupe Island Productions.
Island Productions is an international ensemble and includes, among others, director Mel Tuck and Jewish actors and co-producers Gina Leon and Michael Germant. Although the three come from different places and backgrounds, they are united in their reverence for Williams and his writing.
Leon was born in Johannesburg. She moved to Canada with her family when she was 7. “I spent my childhood in costume, always played something,” she recalled, “but, in high school, I painted a lot. My mother and grandfather were artists.”
Torn between visual arts and theatre, Leon studied both, theatre and art history at the University of Toronto, visual art at the College of Art and Design in Sydney and acting at the New School for Drama in New York. Now, she divides her time between acting and painting. “They feed into each other,” she said. “Art develops imagination, which is necessary for an actor. They are both telling a story.”
In The Glass Menagerie, Leon plays Laura, a young woman with physical disabilities who is mentally fragile. “The play is autobiographical for Williams, and the role of Laura is based on his own beloved sister,” Leon said.
“Tennessee Williams is one of my favorite playwrights, maybe the favorite,” she added. “He has a knack for telling stories that are very personal to him but also universal. The Glass Menagerie happens during the Depression, but everything in the story is relevant now. Because of his timeless appeal, Williams can reach a wide audience. I love his language, too. It is poetic and profound.”
According to Leon, while the play is the story of a dysfunctional family, “it’s also a story of hope. Laura plays with her glass figurines, polishes them in the play. They represent her hope, the connections she sometimes lacks in real life. Her glass menagerie has another meaning, too: it’s her safe refuge. She needs an escape from the harsh reality of life in the 1930s because she is so sensitive and vulnerable.”
Leon’s co-producer and fellow community member, Germant, spent his early childhood in Moscow. His family moved to Montreal when he was 6.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to be a veterinarian, then I wanted to be a spy,” he joked. “When I went to university in Montreal to study French, I was miserable. I started taking acting classes and liked it.”
He began thinking of a theatrical career and later studied at the Montreal School for Performing Arts and the Vancouver Film School.
“When we lived in Moscow, my mother was a stage manager at a children’s theatre,” he said. “Although she didn’t work in theatre after we immigrated, she supported my decision of a career in the performing arts. Seven years ago, I moved to Vancouver to study with Mel Tuck. In 2013, when we organized our Island Productions company, Mel became the director.”
In the show, Germant plays Jim, a guest at the house of Laura, her mother and brother.
“Jim is Laura’s final hope,” Germant explained. “His colleague Tom invited him home to meet his mother and sister, but Tom didn’t tell Jim about Laura. When Jim meets Laura, he is drawn to her, to her imaginary world, to her dreamy personality, but this attraction can’t go anywhere. Jim is already engaged to another woman, but Tom didn’t know that. The entire play is a series of miscommunications. There is sadness there but there is also humor. Like many Williams’ plays, this one is funny but it is also poignant, heartfelt.”
Tuck confirmed the play’s controversial elements and its sophisticated treatment of emotions and ideas, comedy interwoven with bleakness. He knows it from personal experience, having played Laura’s brother Tom in a production of The Glass Menagerie long ago. “There is another connection, too,” he said. “Lynne Griffin, the wonderful actress who plays Amanda, Laura’s mother, in this production, long ago played Laura.”
Tuck’s theatre career spans more than five decades. According to his bio online, he has founded nine theatre companies and directed more than 300 plays; he has taught at institutions across the country and many of his students have become successful and award-winning actors. He still teaches at his studio in Gastown, while also acting himself and, of course, directing.
“The play takes place during the Depression era and we set it as a period play, but its themes are still relevant now,” he said. “We all move forward with our lives, but how much do we sacrifice?… Williams was always compassionate towards his characters, and this play is a plea to understand them all, with their faults and their vulnerabilities.”
The Glass Menagerie runs Sept. 6-25 at PAL Studio Theatre, 581 Cardero St. For tickets and more information, visit glassmenagerie.ca.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.