Along with “The Great Gatsby,” “Hamlet” and “Fahrenheit 451,” Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” is a nearly inescapable element of most high school English curricula. The play, originally produced in 1944, centers around the story of Laura, a sickly and shy daughter obsessed with her collection of glass animals, whose mother Amanda seeks to find her a “gentleman caller” with the help of Tom, Laura’s brother.
Duke Players, the student-run production group of the Theater Studies department, presents a rather skewed take on Williams’ classic with their free Orientation Show “For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls,” which began its run at East Campus’s Brody Theater last weekend and finishes with two shows Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. The choice of a comedy for Duke Players’ first show was a conscious choice: For first-year students who attend the show, it’s a lighthearted take on a work they may have agonized over in high school—and a welcome respite from the occasional chaos of orientation.
“There’s enough crying during O-Week,” director Meredyth Albright, a junior, joked. “We don’t need any more.”
With the cheekily titled “For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls,” playwright Christopher Durang, known for his brand of absurdist parody, turned a humorist’s eye on Williams’ play. When he read “The Glass Menagerie” as a child, Durang had always considered himself sympathetic to Laura, the reclusive daughter. But as he got older, he realized that, as Albright put it, “she’s kind of annoying.” In Durang’s version, Laura’s character is replaced with Lawrence, and Laura’s glass animals are swapped out for Lawrence’s collection of glass cocktail stirrers. The “gentleman caller” is now a hard-of-hearing “feminine caller” named Ginny, and the mother Amanda’s motivation is simply to get her adult children to leave the house.
Where “The Glass Menagerie” was marked by its characters’ repression, “For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls” builds its humor on the lines that characters may have been thinking but wouldn’t have said. And though it’s a comedy, the play bears a measure of relevance to current notions of identity with its gender swapping and role reversals.
“A lot of the themes are about gender identity and sexuality,” Albright noted. “So it’s funny because when Durang wrote it, it would have been a new subject, he would have been broaching this new topic, but for us it’s like every day.”
For this first show, Albright and executive producer Sophie Caplin, a senior, had to put together a cast of four before the summer began in preparation for a dense rehearsal period of two short weeks in August. The timing posed some unique challenges—like an eleventh-hour scramble for an actor to play the lead male, Lawrence—and meant that actors essentially had to be off-book before returning to campus for rehearsal.
For those unfamiliar with the various theater groups on campus, Duke Players carves out a unique niche. In contrast with an independent organization like Hoof ‘n’ Horn, which puts together three student-run musicals each year, Duke Players is funded by the Theater Studies department and makes up its student-run branch. The group prides itself on a workshop-like approach to theater production, honing the skills of writers, directors and producers along with actors and aiming to be as accessible as possible for students interested in theater. If a student is a theater studies major or minor or has participated in two productions by the department, they’re automatically part of Duke Players.
“At a lot of colleges and universities, coming in as a freshman it’s really hard to get into certain theater departments—like you can never be in a show as a freshman, it’s hard to get into the classes. But we want people to know it’s very accessible,” Caplin said. “If you have an idea for something that you’re really passionate about, we can make it happen.”
The Duke Players fall season continues with a musical titled “Once on this Island,” which features an all-black cast along with music from Duke’s Amandla Chorus and choreography from dance professor Ava LaVonne Vinesett. Along with the musical, the group was commissioned for a staged reading in the psychology department and puts on a series of senior distinction projects in the spring.
Even for students who bear little interest in studying theater, Duke Players aims to present a show for everyone with “For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls.” Far from overstaying its welcome, the one-act comedy runs roughly thirty minutes, and each performance includes free pizza at Brody Theater prior to the production.
If nothing else, Caplin said, “It’s a good date.”
For more information about “For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls,” including showtimes, visit theaterstudies.duke.edu.
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