The Lessons of the old South Resound on NY Stage

by DRM

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When you are born into a time and place, and that place is destroyed by time, what are you left with and what do you live for?

Theater-goers in New York City have a rare opportunity to trace the toll that the social construction of the South after the Civil War had in intimate human terms through two capable, professional yet divergent productions of the work of great American playwrights.

You probably know the revival of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, running on Broadway to rave reviews with headline-grabbing performances by recognizable actors.

You are less likely to know about the revival of Paul Green’s The House of Connelly, currently on stage at the TBG Theatre, an Off-Off Broadway house that has been transformed into an old plantation, its walls festooned with the iconography of past generations and its fields farmed by ambitious tenant farmers hungry to overturn the old order.  The production is the work of the ReGroup Theatre, which exists to revive the spirit  of the legendary Group Theatre, which first produced this play.  (And, in full disclosure, my wife Tami plays the role of Evelyn Connelly in the current production.)

These two plays make up the narrative of the South following the Civil War, and through the plights of their characters trace the exquisite torment that the human soul experiences when faced with the uprooting of all ties to the past.

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Paul Green was born in 1894, just 30 years after the war, a child of the emergent South and witness to all its the bitterness and frustration.  In The House of Connelly, first produced in the 1930s, he puts the three classes of the New South into conflict with each other: a grand plantation family tilting toward ruin; tenant farmers scratching out a living; and domestics just years removed from slavery.  The conflict centers around the universal  catalysts of money and love, and the characters all react instinctively, within the limits of their hearts and their class, to find a moment of certainty in a world they don’t wholly understand.

Green was courageous in confronting the harsh truths of these people’s lives, and as we sit and watch some 80 years after, we are swept away by the tragic arc of the story.  As the family scion, Will Connelly, succumbs to Patsy, the clever and beautiful daughter of a tenant farmer, the older generation — Mrs. Connelly and  Uncle Bob — flail to maintain moral control and his sisters, Evelyn and Geraldine, are paralyzed at the sight of their lives slipping away.

The black domestics, Big Sis and Big Sue, are torn between the new and the old life, and Green contrasts the uproarious, grabbing glee of the  hard-working tenant farmers to the bitter and tempestuous chiding of the Connellys.  We are reminded of how this conflict, between the imperative of change that defines life  and our desire for our piece of the world to stand still, is as fresh and real today in 21st Century New York, as it was long ago.

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In The Glass Menagerie we witness the emptiness that comes from living in memory, the violence done to the succeeding generations when the hearts of the ones that they love are lost somewhere in a past that fades with each breath.  Tennessee Williams  was born in 1911, 60 years after the Civil War ruptured the Southern way of life, when the combatants had died and the music of the great balls had slipped away on the wind.

Williams’ gift was his sensitivity to what was lost in our souls when we could not let go of the past and his ability to capture the radiating pain that wove its way through a family.  In The Glass Menagerie, there is no center, nothing that can anchor life in a place, and each of the Wingfields turn to totems to find solace: a glass unicorn for the daughter, a ball gown for the mother and a typewriter, the only totem that promises a different future, for Tom, the narrator of the play.

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The sorrow that infuses The Glass Menagerie is the consequence of the decay that broke apart the Connellys.  Amanda, the mother in The Glass Menagerie, is the future that lies ahead for Geraldine and Evelyn, the two Connelly sisters who leave the plantation at the end of the play to find a new life somewhere else.  Amanda’s unwillingness to accept the reality of the present, the limitations of her life and her children, and to let them free is the rigid and fragile optimism of a woman who can not confront the disappointments and failures of the past.

As these two plays show, those failures were not the consequence of anything these individuals did.  They were the consequence of a grand social upheaval, a way of relating that progress could not sustain.