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Smudged Glass 

ACT brings a welcome humor to Tennessee Williams' classic, but it's not enough

Wednesday, Apr 17 2002
Laird Williamson has managed the neat trick of making The Glass Menagerie a light, amusing play. Tennessee Williams' shadowy portrait of St. Louis near the end of the Depression is a tragedy of what Gore Vidal has called the "lower middle class WASP, Southern airs-and-graces division," and a sad valedictory to a smothering life at home. But with the right director -- like Williamson -- this glum suffusion of memory and regret can also be pretty damn funny.

"I took that horrible novel back to the library, yes! That hideous book by that insane Mr. Lawrence!" Amanda Wingfield shouts at her son Tom -- a stand-in for Tennessee Williams -- after interrupting him at the typewriter. "I cannot control the output of diseased minds or people who cater to them, but I won't allow such filth brought into my house!" Amanda's arias of outrage can be hilarious, especially now that Williams' own habit of writing "filth" is legend, and this speech in particular had the opening-night audience rollicking. What also had them going was Amanda's entrance in a faded voile gown. "I led the cotillion in this dress years ago," she says. The reverie of her jonquil-fragrant youth in Mississippi, populated by gentleman callers, could be delicately amusing or downright pathetic; at the Geary it's uproarious. Even the framed portrait of Mr. Wingfield, the husband who abandoned Amanda to a life of reduced circumstances, shows a grinning, silly little boy, perhaps a milky-skinned cadet or a Boy Scout.

These touches work. The worst Williamson has done is revive Menagerie in a new and lively way, which is nothing more than his job. (In fact, if I see one more dreary version I might choke myself on a pill bottle.) Thanks to nuanced performances from Robin Moseley (as Amanda) and Heidi Armbruster (as Laura), the play ends with a strong and necessary dose of pathos. Still, there's something easy and glib about Williamson's lightheartedness that keeps the show as a whole from being a great revival. Like ACT's last production of a jaded old warhorse -- Blithe Spirit -- this Menagerie is merely pretty good. And why would you revive either play without making sure it was great?

The play's title focuses attention on Laura, the Wingfield daughter, who retreats from her thinning marriage prospects and fussy, overweening mother into an obsession with her assortment of colored glass animals. The mother, Amanda, lives in a nonexistent Southern past, and her son Tom is a writer. All three, in other words, are romantics, and hide in personal dream worlds. Williams dramatizes their dreaming by giving each character speeches or scenes that are like flights of passion in an opera -- arias, which exclude the rest of the world -- and a great production of the play would require the actors to emphasize these speeches with vivid shifts in tone or body language. Here, lighting designer Peter Maradudin does most of the work. When Tom or Amanda gives a speech or when Laura plays with her animals, the set dims and the actor works in a coppery pool of light.

This is not to say that the speeches aren't strong. Moseley finds moments of bitter spontaneity, especially in Amanda's fierce sermon about spinsterism: "I've seen such cases in the South ... little birdlike women without any nest, eating the crust of humility all their days!" But these flights of passion are no different from good monologues in any other play. They don't draw us into each character's fragile, magical world, and in fact all the stage magic -- from Tom's hokey conjuration of a lost time and place (as the narrator, sweeping up lights and cueing music with his hands) to Laura's quiet enchantment with her menagerie (shown in a spotlit stage picture) -- feels artificial and forced.

Tom also feels underdeveloped by Joey Collins, who may just be miscast. He has none of a young (and gay) Tennessee's romanticism; he's slim without being delicate and sensible without being stubborn. His speeches rise to the occasion, but some of his ordinary acting choices betray a shallow reading of the role. As he narrates, Tom compares his family's denial to America's -- "In Spain there was revolution. Here there was only shouting and confusion. In Spain there was Guernica" -- and on "Guernica" Collins clenches his fist, as though Guernica were something assertive and strong, not something melancholy and obscene. Collins leaves whole dimensions out of his character -- and so, by the way, does Neil Hopkins, as Laura's blustery gentleman caller.

Laura gets a sensitive treatment from Armbruster, who isn't homely but still manages to seem sweet, self-effacing, and humble. Without a well-played Laura The Glass Menagerie becomes an exercise in self-pity, but here we get to watch -- painfully, clearly -- Laura's fleeting moment of real life, when the man she would like to love steps into her dream world and shatters it. That part of the play is never funny. When it works, as it does in Armbruster's performance, even a flawed Menagerie is worth revisiting.


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