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The Glass Menagerie

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Judith Ivey and Keira Keeley
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Tennessee Williams's breakthrough play, The Glass Menagerie, may have been first produced on Broadway in 1945, largely concern a time more than a decade before that, and depict a quartet that are confined in an even more remote sector of the past. But watching it today, especially in a revival as conscientiously acted as the one Roundabout has just opened at its Off-Broadway Laura Pels Theatre, one is struck most by its timelessness. The specific troubles of a St. Louis family on the brink of Great Depression suffocation and the more general wars they wage against themselves and each other are as relevant today as they must have seemed 65 years ago.

So one must wonder why Gordon Edelstein, the director of this production (which originated at the Long Wharf Theatre last spring), felt so compelled to "help" a show that history and human experience have proven doesn't need the aid. He's guided his performers, who are led by the crystalline Judith Ivey and Patch Darragh, to a remarkable evocation of life on the brink of disaster. But his staging concept seems almost designed to push them over the edge - and not in a good way.

Edelstein's vision begins with an attempt to transform Tom Wingfield (Darragh) from a figurative Tennessee Williams into a literal one. There's never been a question that Tom is indeed Williams - that was, after all, even the playwright's actual first name. But lodging the character in a shabby New Orleans hotel room, where he drowns his long-aborning sorrows in alcohol as he commits the words he speaks to paper, is applying an additional layer of weight to a play that already has many more things of consequence on its mind.

Patch Darragh
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Williams himself called The Glass Menagerie a "dream play," and it's an apt descriptor. When Tom, speaking directly to us, invokes his upbringing, it becomes an intoxicated combination of might-have-beens and never-weres that lead you to wonder if anything can be taken at face value. Was his mother Amanda truly a deluded gorgon, or did Tom's anger at her stomping on his dreams make her into one? And was his sister Laura, crippled from birth, truly nothing more than a saintly victim awaiting absolution from one of two men: either her first-ever gentleman caller or Tom himself?

Answering these questions, and any of a hundred others, is where directors can and must make their marks. But Edelstein doesn't really address them. Instead, he reduces the idealized and demonized visions Tom creates by restricting them to his in-the-moment inspirations before the typewriter. Edelstein makes them more real, and in so doing makes them less real - these are ghosts Tom is trying to dispel to preserve his own soul, not the tools with which he's trying to plunge himself out of writer's block. That story is far flatter and less fulfilling than the one Williams constructed.

The good news, however, is that when Edelstein sticks close to that story, this is an estimable, heartfelt production. Amanda (Ivey) is not some withering waif, but a confident and determined woman who uses her memories the way she uses every aspect of life in her present: as weapons to threaten from the universe a better life for herself and her children. Darragh's Tom is daring and bold, less angry than anxious, and more of a covert dreamer whose yen for adventure evolves the more his mother tries to leech it from him. Their relationship can feel dead or at least lead-footed in some mountings (such as David Leveaux's bloodless Broadway revival in 2005), but here it's a vital, breathing organism that isn't one aspect of the Wingfields' angst, but rather the very source of it.

Because Ivey and Darragh are as adept with the play's more comic moments as with its heavier scenes, this production is as fearlessly funny as it is moving. But it never settles for the easy any more than the Wingfields do. Amanda appearing in her presentation gown, several decades beyond fashion (though spiffily designed by Martin Pakledinaz), is a moment more wistful than wry; this is a woman for whom the past is serious business. And her rage is always constructive rather than destructive, never threatening to shatter Laura's factual collection of glass animals or the family's own metaphorically fragile bodies, but instead preserve them over the long haul. Tom's revulsion to her tactics shine in both his moments of bitter sarcasm and his drunken ramblings. Each lives life as a reaction to the other.

As a result, the play has a solid, full-bodied emotional core that needs to be only gently balanced by its lighter periphery. Crucial to this is Keira Keeley's Laura: Her greatest affliction isn't her lame leg, but her resignation to a life far less than the one she should be willing to live. Keeley plays the character with no self-pity, which lends fuel to her lengthy "date" with the gentleman caller, Jim O'Connor (Michael Mosley), who shows up in Act II to put her right and ends up setting everything wrong. Mosley is, perhaps, a shade too unmusically slick for this fastest moving of go-getters, but cuts a strong figure as the master of the outer world none of the Wingfields have learned how to become.

Jim is, from his appearance to his exit, the only one who's ever in complete control - whether or not he knows it. This provides yet another rebuttal to Edelstein's concept: If Tom isn't haunted by the things and people he ran away from but couldn't escape, there's no play; and this older, drunker Tom doesn't seem tormented by anything except a deadline. This renders the frequent use of the scrim back wall of Michael Yeargan's stark set and Jennifer Tipton's lights to reveal people as half images, as well as his talking to them rather than himself for the only time the whole evening in the final scene, not just meaningless but confusing.

The idea is certainly drawn from one of Tom's signature lines, which is one of the most indicative of the play as a whole: "I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion." Unfortunately, this production far too often practices what Tom calls the stage magician's craft: "illusion that has the appearance of truth." The two views are, as a whole, not compatible. But when Edelstein trusts Williams most, illusion and truth become as indistinguishable as they must be in all the greatest theatre - including The Glass Menagerie.

The Glass Menagerie
Through May 30
Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue
Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes, with one intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: