By Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer
Community theater groups take a lot of pride in the productions they put on, but you don’t often tout the props they use.
After all, props are just props.
However, Maria Ackley, who is directing “The Glass Menagerie” for Area Community Theater of Sharpsville, wants anyone who will listen to know about special props she procured for the show that runs at 8 p.m. Nov. 8 and 9 and 2:30 p.m. Nov. 10 in Pierce Opera House.
The Tennessee Williams play features glass unicorns that hold symbolic as well as visual value. Ackley had unicorns created for the show by Scott Warner, the grandson of John Cudequest, the glass artisan who fashioned unicorns for the show’s original Broadway run in 1944.
“I was shocked,” Ackley said of Warner agreeing to make the props. “He said he was going to use the original design that his grandfather had used for Tennessee Williams.”
Cudequest trained his daughter, Kathy Warner, who trained her son, John Warner, and the family has filled a number of unicorn orders for productions of “The Glass Menagerie” over the years.
Stage props often have little value past the fall of the last curtain, but Ackley cradled one at a recent lunch date like it was a magical talisman. It’s almost a shame that they are made to be broken during the performance, but Ackley will raffle off an in-tact unicorn at each show to honor their artistic integrity.
“It’s a direct link to Tennessee Williams,” she said. “I think that makes our show really special.”
“The Glass Menagerie” is one of the great works of the stage and “arguably the greatest play of the 20th century,” Ackley said.
It’s the most autobiographical of Williams’ plays – the one that made him famous – and examines his emotions about leaving his family to pursue his art, especially his mentally ill sister, who underwent a botched lobotomy while he was away.
Set in the Depression of 1937 in St. Louis, the show follows “a week’s time of a family falling apart,” Ackley said.
It sounds heavy, but Ackley said the show contains two elements to counter the downer emotions – humor and the intense love the family members feel for each other.
“To me, the core of the show is about love,” she said. “They family loves each other so much, but they don’t know how to do it successfully.”
Family dysfunction is not something limited to the imagination of a playwright.
In opposition to the effort put into acquiring the unicorns, the show is staged minimally.
“It’s a memory play so we don’t have to have a realistic set,” Ackley said. “It’s pieced together like Tom’s memory.”
Tom is played by John Morris, and Sarah Puhalla acts as Laura, the character based on Williams’ sister. The only two other roles are filled by Susan Woge, who portrays Tom’s and Laura’s mother, with Auston Papay as the gentleman caller.
Ackley played the role Woge fills in a Shenango Playhouse production 30 or so years ago, and she knows Joseph Scarvell staged a version at Penn State Shenango, Sharon, also years ago.
With Broadway reviving the play and the production generating Tony Award talk, Ackley believes the time is right to bring “The Glass Menagerie” back to the Shenango Valley.
“I hope people will recognize what a classic this is and reacquaint themselves to what a masterwork it is.”
Pierce Opera House is at 100 N. Mercer Ave., Sharpsville. Tickets: Muscarella’s Cafe Italia, Sharpsville, www.actsharpsville.com or 724-815-4388. Adult tickets are $15 and students are $10. A live video feed will be broadcast to the first floor of the opera house so that people who cannot make it up the steep steps to the theater still can see the show.