KPBS AIRDATE: May 27, 1992
It’s no secret that “The Glass Menagerie” is an autobiographical play. Tennessee Williams did indeed live in St. Louis , where the piece takes place, with his difficult mother, a former Southern belle, and his withdrawn sister, who, with his mother’s consent, was later lobotomized.
His classic mood-memory play is poetic, lyrical and done to death — by every community theater and high school in the land. But this is the first time the La Jolla Playhouse has tackled any of Williams’ plays, and it kicks off the tenth anniversary season.
It’s a less than successful endeavor. The mood is there, all right, and the moody lighting, and the lyrical, poetic words. But we hit the first snag in the casting of SDSU alumna Marion Ross as Amanda, that mother of all mothers. Amanda has been variously played as bitchy, girlish, shrewish, coquettish, desperate, despairing. Ross plays her like… well, a mother. There is little evidence of Southern grace or charm; the accent, in fact, comes and goes. This Amanda is merely annoying. She isn’t interesting to watch or listen to. And she seems more pragmatic than preoccupied with the dreams of the past. In the second act, when the Gentleman Caller, Jim, arrives, her flirtatiousness is more vulgar than desperate; we want to look away.
What continues to attract our attention, though, is Laura, the fragile, crippled sister who lives only for her collection of glass animals. Jane Adams is astonishing, translucent. She is completely Laura: so delicate, so frightened, so terribly shy. Her hands flutter to her face when she speaks; she tentatively reaches out to touch Jim, her high school idol, but quickly withdraws her hand. She blossoms in that painful scene between them, and then retreats. It’s an aching and beautiful performance.
Randle Mell is a respectable Tom, the narrator who orchestrates this memory and figures prominently in it as the brother and son, the poet who craves adventure. Mell isn’t quite dreamy enough, or forceful, but he’s good. And Matt Mulhern is an affable Gentleman Caller.
But director Douglas Hughes doesn’t display a crystalline vision of the piece. It seems to waft along on its words, not really grounding itself or the audience. It floats in an overly elaborate set, which seems, more than anything, to be designed to fill the huge space of the Mandell Weiss Theatre. This is an intimate play; it would sit better in the new Weiss Forum. The sepia-toned, angular apartment is striking, and the catwalk is a nice effect, but the neon is really over the top. The costumes, too, are inconsistent. Ross’ second-act dress-up dress is singularly unflattering, but Adams looks perfectly ethereal.
“The Glass Menagerie” is always worth seeing, sentimentality notwithstanding. The ache of the play is palpable, but for that we have the playwright to thank, rather than the Playhouse.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.