The Next Stage Repertory Company's production of "The Glass Menagerie" features Justin Cowan as Tom, the voice of Tennessee Williams. The innovative interpretation, which also features Presila Quinby as Amanda, Hannah Grenfell as Laura, Adam Cuppy as the gentleman caller and jazz guitarist Bil Leonhart, plays through Sept. 14 at the Craterian Theater in Medford. Cowan graduated a year ago from Southern Oregon University with a theater arts degree in performance. We met at Alex's in Ashland late one afternoon.
EH: What attracts you to the plays of Tennessee Williams?
JC: His poetry speaks to me. Something that is unique to his storytelling is his sense of magic and the visceral feeling that we get from his stories. He tells the story of his life through the poetry of the characters he's created.
The world of Tennessee Williams is its own atmosphere; you can almost taste it in the air. "The Glass Menagerie" takes place in St. Louis, and partially in the winter. The characters are stifled in this small apartment. There is a lot of friction between the characters. Friction is hot and that lends itself to this atmosphere, this feeling of warmth.
EH: How is playing Tennessee Williams different than playing Shakespeare?
JC: You have the same craft that you use every time, and that is to dive in and find the character, as you're swimming through the words that the character is speaking. The actor's job is to specify what's going on for the character, and to live that truthfully in the moment. With regard to Shakespeare, there's another layer on top of that: the verse that you have to overcome as an actor. Shakespeare needs to be decoded first. It's a different kind of poetry; it's like playing a different kind of music. You have the same instrument, but playing baroque classical versus jazz. It's the same notes, but played in a different order and in a different rhythm. Tennessee Williams is very jazzy.
Shakespeare has a certain atmosphere too. When you go and see a Shakespeare play, it's like going and seeing classical music. You know that you are going to be sitting there for a while, and you'll need to focus to grasp everything. But what you take away from it is beautiful, and hugely important, and clearly has a message that has lasted that length of time. In that same regard, Tennessee Williams and jazz music will also withstand the test of time.
EH: What is the magic of theater?
JC: It's the willingness; it's the will to escape. It's the mutual agreement that I will let you take me away. Tell me a story. And I will agree with everything you say. By suspending this disbelief you're saying, "Oh, this world is real, I feel this world."
When you can successfully dupe an audience into believing that they are somewhere else, if you can make them forget about their life for even a moment, I think you've performed magic. You have transported them.
Doing the work is half the reward. In some cases, it's the whole reward. It's a challenge. It's a puzzle to reach this one goal of an elaborate magic trick. It's the thrill of the magic and carefully piece by piece putting together this stack of sticks. And then closing night, we're done. We're pulling out the base. There it goes. And you'll never see it again.
"The Glass Menagerie," directed by Doug Warner, plays at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 13, and 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14, at the Craterian, 23 S. Central Ave., Medford. For tickets and information, visit www.craterian.org or call the box office at 541-779-3000.
Evalyn Hansen is a writer and director living in Ashland. She trained as an actor at the American Conservatory Theatre and is a founding member of San Francisco's Magic Theatre. Reach her at email@example.com.