KPBS AIRDATE: JUNE 23, 2000
“The Glass Menagerie” is a dazzlingly lyrical play, viewed through the misty haze of memory. It is one of Tennessee Williams’ most poetic pieces of theater, and one of his most clearly autobiographical.
Like the narrator, Williams was a furtive poet named Tom who was stifled in St. Louis, cooped up with his mother, a faded Southern belle, and his fragile sister. In the play, Tom is looking back on a patchwork of indelible images of his family, a monstrously smothering mother, a hapless, emotionally and physically crippled sister, and the Gentleman Caller that he brings home one night.
Since it is written as a reverie, the play has to float like a dream, wistful and ethereal. But the North Coast Repertory Theatre production aims for hard-edged realism. The set is brown and drab, too much so for this fantasy-laced family. And rather than chimerical, moody lighting, abrupt blackouts slice the play into choppy segments.
Though Dan Gruber’s Gentleman Caller is a credible, likable, guy, Priscilla Allen’s Amanda is more a desperate mom than a monstrous matriarch, less a force of nature than a manipulative nag. Tim Irving’s Tom is too smirky, angry and cynical. We never believe his poet’s heart or his tender feelings for his sister, the only soft spot in his gritty life, whose memory haunts him forever. And why shouldn’t it? KB Mercer’s Laura is heart-breaking, so achingly shy, cringing and self-effacing, we can barely watch her. Mercer’s luminous performance radiates light and heat, and her seminal scene with the Gentleman Caller, her gradual unfolding and ultimate shattering, is tragically beautiful.
In this production, director Sean Murray has consistently gone against the conventional grain, playing for realism, casting against type, even, oddly, underscoring Tom’s latent homosexual longings, which have never surfaced in any other incarnation of this classic that I’ve seen. But despite the play’s inherent sentimentality and this production’s kitchen sink reality, the piece is irresistible when it’s done well, and for all its flaws, it is done well. Like the tiny crystal animals of the title, the play continues to attract and reflect light; there’s a little of the restless, irresponsible Tom and the frightened, fragile Laura in all of us. “The Glass Menagerie” remains a brilliantly bittersweet remembrance for one playwright, and a poignant masterpiece for all time.
©2000 Patté Productions Inc.