Before the audience is fully hushed, Tom Wingfield appears upstage in a gray half-light. Utterly ordinary, the quiet wire of a man pokes his way across designer Tony Straiges's elegant set. In the background, a fire escape leads to a lace-trimmed door that opens to the fragments of Tom's worn childhood home, a tenement in Depression-era St. Louis. His fingers glaze over the remnants of this world, a vanilla-colored couch, a stern brown photograph, a mahogany table with fat dark legs.
Suddenly, with twinkling eyes, he turns to the audience and says, "I have tricks in my pocket. I have things up my sleeve." With a wave of his arm, the workaday man is standing in an amber pool of light. A flick of his bony wrist produces tinkling ancient melodies, the sort that hang over memory. As he tells us, "The play is memory, [and] in memory everything seems to happen to music." So opens director Michael Wilson's exquisitely human take on Tennessee Williams's mythic-sized masterpiece The Glass Menagerie. It is a simple, subtle and stunning opening to a production that rolls out over the evening and becomes, in the end, as fine and powerful as anything the Alley has produced in years.
There is much to praise here. Wilson has cracked open this modern-day tragedy and found in it all the domestic humor, familial intimacy and mournful sadness that makes it one of the most important American plays of the 20th century.
The Glass Menagerie
Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue
Through Saturday, September 22; 713-228-8421. $35-$50
Because Menagerie is driven by character and language, casting is paramount. Wilson's choices could not have been richer or smarter. Each of the four dreamers who populate this tattered landscape adds dimension and depth. Amanda Wingfield, Tom's meddling and maddening mother, is one of the most coveted female roles in the American canon. The original single mom who's every bit a survivor, Amanda speaks like a poet and scales through a deliriously lush emotional landscape. Often she is played as a tyrant as she holds court over her pathetic children, or as a frail fading flower who's withering into senility. Not so in this production.
Elizabeth Ashley, who was a friend to Williams and has won critical praise for her work in his plays, finds a surprisingly lovable and sexy side to this willful, aging mother. Her Amanda sashays with old-time Southern grace about the dilapidated apartment. She serves up lemonade, incessantly needles her son, and entertains daughter Laura's first ever "gentleman caller" with such effervescent charm that when she tells the story of her own coquettish past, filled with days in which she received "17 gentlemen callers," we believe her completely. Ashley's Amanda is built of steel, which enables her to provide for her children despite the fact that her husband, the telephone man who "fell in love with long distance," abandoned the family years ago.
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As Amanda's henpecked son, Robert Sella finds in Tom all the crushing poetic angst that could drive a decent young man to do bad things. Sella's bony, angular face is shadowed with all the unmet desire that burns inside Tom. At the shoe factory where he works, he spends so much time in a broom closet writing poetry that his only friend calls him Shakespeare. At night, he escapes his mother's constant badgering by going "to the movies," though, as Amanda points out, the movies don't last until the wee hours. Sardonic and smart, Sella's Tom also walks with the bone-deep sadness that comes from a lonely life filled with mind-numbingly dull work and dark secrets. The only one he can openly care for is his sister. And late one night, when he brings home a magician's scarf, he gives it to her in an act of heartbreaking generosity.
Tom's sister Laura is often so underplayed that the character becomes an absolute cipher. But here, under the care of Anne Dudek, she is a fascinating creature, almost otherworldly for all her strange and wide-eyed beauty. Crippled by extreme shyness, Laura has retreated into a childish world of glass figurines. Amanda has tried to turn her aging maid of a daughter into a businesswoman, only to discover that Laura dropped out of school because she vomited in the classroom. Amanda's last hope for Laura is marriage, an unlikely occurrence given her personality. But Tom manages to find a man to bring home, and Amanda sets about making Laura over. During this scene, the tall and waiflike Dudek slumps to her mother's fussing. All elbows and bony fingers and dressed in girlish ribbons and bows, she looks ridiculous at first. But during the famous "Gentleman Caller Scene," when she falls in love for the first time, Dudek's Laura becomes luminous.
Indeed, Grant Show's Jim is a man most girls could love. Self-involved, and well-intentioned, the handsome braggart works his charms on Laura in an effort to apply the pop-psychology lingo he's learning in "night school." He decides that Laura's problem is an "inferiority complex," which he sets about to fix on the night he comes to call. Of course, Jim, who is taking public speaking courses and talks with all the poetry of a radio-show host, has the sensitivity of a "stumble john."
A powerful and unrelenting rhythm pulses throughout these scenes. The family is hysterically funny, especially when they fight, screaming, "Go to the moon" and "You ugly, babbling old witch" at each other. "Why can't my children be normal," sighs Amanda, and the audiences peals with laughter. She dresses herself in a funny purple chiffon frock (thanks to Judith Dolan's pitch-perfect costumes). But underneath all their comic charms, these four characters are burdened with the grief of a deep and abiding loneliness, the kind that comes from years of broken dreams and broken promises. In the end, they show us that we all need careful attention. For like Laura's frail menagerie of beautiful blown glass, lives and happiness "break so easily."