The Glass Menagerie
Reviewed by Lyle Zimskind
Sierra Madre Playhouse
Through June 19
A staple from the syllabus of many high school English classes is brought vividly to life in the Sierra Madre Playhouse’s exemplary new production of The Glass Menagerie. Tennessee Williams’ 1944 classic has been revived countless times, including four screen versions and a Broadway production in 2013. But fans of the play, and those curious to see it for the first time, will be amply rewarded by director Christian Lebano’s straightforward staging, which features a fine ensemble led by Katherine James’ bravura performance as the proud but emotionally stricken family matriarch, Amanda.
An autobiographical memory play, Menagerie is narrated by Williams’ alter ego Tom Wingfield (Christian Durso), who recalls events that happened in the family he escaped from five years earlier. The role involves considerable heavy lifting, as the performer is tasked with delivering eloquent but non-conversational and rhetorical passages (“I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”) that address both his place as the teller of the story and his aspirations, as one of its characters, to escape the household in which he is trapped. Durso’s success in sustaining a consistently visceral presence that bridges both of these temporal realms is not an easy trick to pull off.
The central character is undeniably Amanda, the overbearing mother of Tom and his shy “crippled” sister Laura (Andrea Muller). Abandoned by her husband years before, Amanda is now fiercely animated by memories of her youthful days as a Southern belle in high demand, and insists on preserving the manners of that long lost era even as she and her adult children are running out of hope for any kind of improvement in their lives. Amanda’s incessant demands and unrealistic expectations for her children’s prospects are easy to caricature; alternately, a performer may try to cultivate our sympathies for this difficult personality. James opts for neither of these simple interpretations; instead, she allows us to pity this anachronistic creature, even though we cannot avoid sharing in Tom’s contempt for a woman whose delusions have imposed such trauma on her children.
Victimized by her mother’s expectations, Laura secretly drops out of vocational business school and retreats into the imaginary world of her collected miniature glass animal figurines (which give the play its title). Muller is highly sympathetic as the daughter who does her best to be what her mother wants her to be, but whose efforts doom her to devastating disappointment at the hands of the “gentleman caller,” Jim O’Connor (Ross Philips). The caller’s tenacious, if callous, drive for self-improvement contrasts sharply with the Wingfield family’s non-mobility. It’s a perfect portrait of mid-century middle American optimism, all energy with a touch of obliviousness.
The extensive, almost essayistic stage directions that Williams incorporates into the text of The Glass Menagerie leave less room for interpretation than most scripts. But Lebano and his design team do infuse the production with a couple narrative enhancements, most notably a wordless vignette at the beginning which depicts Tom’s return to the now-empty home he’d left behind. Also, the large photograph of the smirking absent father figure that dominates the Wingfields’ domestic milieu undergoes a subtle, almost unnoticeable, temporary transformation during a climactic scene. Although neither of these touches adds much to our understanding of the psychological ramifications of Williams’ oppressive family profile, they don’t detract either. Jonathan Beard’s original score really does provide strong atmospheric enhancement.
The Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. through June 26; no performances June 10-11, added performances June 12 at 7 p.m. and June 18 at 2:30 p.m. (626) 355-4318 or sierramadreplayhouse.org. Running time: 2 hours and 35 minutes with a 15 minute intermission.