Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Glass Menagerie
Ross Valley Players
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's reviews of Don't Eat the Mangos, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, and Culture Clash (Still) in America

Carolyn Arnold and Tamar Cohn
Photo by Robin Jackson
When a small theatre company puts on a classic play—whether it's Shakespeare, O'Neill, Chekov or, in this case, Tennessee Williams—I occasionally have a sense of "Really? Again?" I understand the reasoning. They are "classics," after all, and in some cases (Shakespeare, for example) can be produced without paying royalties, a clear benefit for community theaters that often operate on meager budgets. But it can be a challenge to find a fresh, appealing approach to well-known stories and characters that doesn't throw off an audience. (King Lear staged almost entirely with sheep? O'Neill with characters in blackface and drag?)

So I will confess to being a little skeptical about Ross Valley Players' decision to stage the admittedly amazing The Glass Menagerie. Haven't we seen it enough? Do we really need to experience the dolor of the Wingfields one more time? And when I saw the rather bland stage design (by Ken Rowland) with its slapdash paint job and haphazard propping, I worried that I might be in for more disappointment.

I generally despise being wrong, but I was oh so wrong in my preconceptions about this production and oh so very, very happy to have my prejudices proved incorrect. Except for that shabby set (which is nonetheless laid out well for the onstage action), there is almost nothing about this staging of the play that made Tennessee Williams's reputation as a playwright that isn't first rate.

Let's begin with the cast. As Amanda, the matriarch of the down-on-their-luck Wingfield family, Tamar Cohn is nothing short of spectacular. The intensity with which she plays the intrusive, hectoring, authoritarian mother of Tom (Greg Crane) and Laura (Carolyn Arnold) has a ferocity that makes itself known every second she's on stage. She positively blazes. The character is a complex yin-yang of charm and creepiness: when she's charming, it's still a little creepy, but when she's creepy (or controlling or bullying) there's still a little taste of genteel Southern charm that manages to seep through. Cohn's physical performance is noteworthy for its delicacy and precision. The ways in which she rotates her arm, or curls her fingers, or adjusts her posture ever so slightly, or widens her eyes all have specific intention behind them, and serve Williams's text magnificently. The look that transforms Amanda's face when Laura threatens not to come to the table when the "gentleman caller" arrives made me exceedingly glad she isn't my mother.

Greg Crane, whose bio lists him as the author of a solo play about Tennessee Williams, clearly has a deep love for the playwright, and that affection comes through powerfully in his portrayal of Tom Wingfield, who is a stand-in for Williams himself. (The character of the morbidly shy Laura is based in part on Williams's own sister, who suffered from schizophrenia and was lobotomized, and Amanda is a simulacrum of his own mother.) Jesse Lumb plays Jim O'Connor, the gentleman caller, with a winning grin and a gentleness that is a welcome respite from the seething resentment that pervades the Wingfield family constellation.

If there's a weak link in the ensemble, it's Carolyn Arnold's portrayal of Laura. To her credit, the role of Laura is probably the most challenging of the four. Laura is almost always turned inward, lost in her own world, and playing that kind of role successfully—especially against the bigger, showier roles of her scene partners—must be a daunting task for any actor. And when she finally gets her big scene with Jim, her performance picks up significantly, and she is less a beautiful, fragile ornament (like her collection of glass animals) and more of a woman who—while still shy—exhibits desires and emotions she had previously kept contained.

Director David Abrams has stated that his responsibility is to "open windows for the audience to see the beauty and dignity of all of the characters." In this, he has succeeded magnificently, for at the end of the play (completed in a brisk two hours), we feel we know these characters deeply and can understand and even empathize with the dilemmas each faces.

If you've never seen The Glass Menagerie, it truly is some of the greatest American dramas, and this stellar production puts all its power on display for you. Even if you've seen it multiple times, you owe it to yourself to see it again—if only to experience the magnificence of Tamar Cohn.

Ross Valley Players' The Glass Menagerie runs through April 5, 2020, at The Barn, Marin Art and Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross CA. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Ticket prices are $24-29 general admission, and $14-17 for those 24 and under. For tickets and information, call 415-456-9555, ext. 1 or visit