Review: “The Glass Menagerie”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co. at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
When: through July 28
Tickets: $37
Phone: 773-975-8150

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

I didn’t go to Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co.’s acclaimed production of “The Glass Menagerie” at Angel Island this past winter, so I was glad its transfer to Theater Wit provided a second chance. Director Hans Fleischmann’s production proved to be every bit as iconoclastic as reported, and although not all of his ideas worked, the scene between Laura and the “gentleman caller” was one of the best versions I’ve seen.

Fleischmann’s interpretation of Tennessee Williams’ memory play transforms Tom, played by him, into a drunken bum living in an alley strewn with bottles, broken furniture and the other detritus of Grant Sabin’s set design. Dressed in rags with filthy bare feet and long scraggly hair and beard (obviously fake, since he shaved off the real one), he stumbles around imagining the colored glassware piled in one area is his sister Laura’s collection of miniature glass animals, that some construction fragments are the St. Louis apartment’s fire escape and that a tattered couch is in the living room. The sheet he tacks up on the wall over the smiling face that he says is his father (looks like Alan Ladd in an old poster) stands in for the movies he’s always escaping the house for, and silent black-and-white clips flicker across it for most of the evening (rather distractingly).

Since everyone springs from Tom’s memory, the others can be anything he wants them to be. That may be why Amanda, the mother he remembers as a monster, comes across as a cartoon in Maggie Cain’s portrayal, but I’m not sure stripping away her humanity serves the play well. Her embarrassingly coquettish behavior with the gentleman caller is rendered even more ridiculous by the fact that the Southern belle gown she wears looks like it’s been stored in a leaky trunk for decades.

The director’s most radical — and least successful — departure from reality is that the characters don’t interact or speak directly to each other for most of the evening. Instead, Tom, Amanda and the fragile Laura (Joanne Dubach) look out at us or at nothing, isolated in their own little worlds.

This changes only with the arrival of the gentleman caller, Jim, beautifully portrayed by Walter Briggs. He’s mastered the complicated combination of charm, self-assuredness, insecurity and determination of a man who had it all in high school, is finding a decade later that the world is not his oyster, but is devoted to self improvement. Even better, both he and Dubach handle their interaction with supreme delicacy and real feeling, so we see the tenderness and what might have been between them at the same time as its impossibility. Jim’s conviction that he can help Laura get over her shyness is as palpable as is our awareness that he doesn’t understand her and can‘t help, much as we would like it to be otherwise. 

If all of Mary-Arrchie’s “The Glass Menagerie” were as good, it would be a definite “don’t miss.” What I found most lacking — aside from the requisite glass unicorn — was that gut-wrenching sense of Tom’s attachment to his sister. Perhaps the show was more his than it should have been, so that his selfishness and self-absorption are what stand out at the end, ironically substantiating Amanda’s assessment of him, something I doubt Williams intended.