Marin Theatre Company is billing its current production of The Glass Menagerie as a bold interpretation of the Tennessee Williams play. But what makes this production excel is not an unusual concept or directorial razzle dazzle. It's the extraordinary performance of Nicholas Pelczar as Tom Wingfield.
It's not an easy role. Tom -- as Tom himself declares at the opening -- is "the narrator of the play, and also a character in it." He's a man remembering his worst yet most necessary deed, narrating it from a distance yet also reliving it before our eyes. It's St. Louis in the late 1930s. The war looms on the horizon, and the Depression has been going on so long that prosperity feels more like an illusion than a memory.
But in the cramped apartment Tom shares with his mother Amanda (Sherman Fracher) and sister Laura (Anna Bullard), other blows smart more sharply: the long ago departure of Tom's father, "a telephone man who fell in love with long distance," and an unnamed condition that's given Laura a limp and made her pathologically shy.
To cope, each retreats into a fantasy. The fussy and chatty Amanda, living in her Southern belle past, believes her retinue of gentlemen callers could knock on the door again at any moment. Laura regards herself the zookeeper of her collection of small glass animals and spends all her time caring for them. Tom, stuck working in the warehouse of a shoe factory to support them, dreams of writing and leaving, but Amanda's guilt-tripping--"Self, self, self is that all you ever think of?"--has held him back.
She even prevails upon him to find a gentleman caller (the natural Craig Marker) for Laura. This visitor seems to Tom "an emissary from a world of reality that we were somehow set apart from," but his presence proves as ephemeral as everything else.
Pelczar creates an unusually sympathetic Tom, one who perhaps in contrast to Williams' intent is the emotional center of the play. His Tom is not just a dreamy writer, ready to launch into self-righteous vituperation whenever Amanda tells him how to chew his food or accuses him of being like his father. He also deeply enjoys interacting with his eccentric family members, practically bursting with glee at the very thought of teasing his mother or, in his own, understated way, giving Laura the unconditional love and taste of the outside world she so desperately needs. Whether delivering the poetry that is a Williams soliloquy or just watching, from the fire escape, a scene between Laura and Amanda, Pelczar is so emotionally present in each moment that what's being said almost doesn't matter: You just want to be audience to the experience he creates.
In many ways, it's true that Jasson Minadakis's production is not your grandmother's The Glass Menagerie. But with such audacious moves, some will inevitably serve the play better than others. One that really works is the choice to not represent Tom's father with a large portrait, as the stage directions dictate, but with a live human being (Andrew Wilke). Not only can he look back when characters refer to him, making the evoked past feel fuller and richer; he also plays a doleful trumpet during scene changes and occasional underscore. Coupled with the way the pastels of Ben Wilhelm's lighting interact with the austere steel bars of Kat Conley's set, the entire design works to blur the real and the imagined.
Distracting us from these beautifully designed moments, however, is excessive pantomime. The only props Minadakis allows onstage are those which populate Laura's imaginative world--the glass animals, the victrola on which she plays her father's warped records. This gives the set a certain simplicity. But the constant pretending of forks and books and teacups draws too much attention to itself. And the choice to make Laura's disability something close to autism means that moments when the script requires her to have a strong emotional reaction to the world around her feel out of character.
It's great to see, as Minadakis wrote in the program notes, that "we're just getting to the point where people are starting to think about the work in the poetic sense, like the way we look at Shakespeare's work." But this production also shows that with Williams, as with Shakespeare, a director's concepts might enlighten, but it's powerful performances that most move us.
The Glass Menagerie continues through December 18 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Admission is $34 - $55. For tickets call 388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.
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