The Glass Menagerie was Tennessee Williams's first successful play, opening in Chicago on December 26, 1944, then opening on B'way March 31, 1945, and playing through August 3,1946. It won the New York Drama Critics Award as Best New Play, and starred Laurette Taylor, a renowned actress suffering from alcoholism, who had not appeared on stage for the previous six years. The courageous casting proved to be brilliant, and Taylor's work has been hailed as the performance of the century. She died December 7, 1946, four months after the play closed.
The set-up: Amanda Wingfield grew up in the milieu of Southern gentry, but made the error of marrying, not a wealthy planter, but instead a man with a smile who swept her off her feet, and then abandoned her with two children, Tom and Laura, adults when the play opens. Taylor played her in the original and Nora Hahn plays her here, capturing her deep sense of betrayal, in having fallen from the grace of debutante balls to a lower-middle-class apartment in St. Louis. Amanda is over-protective, and fails to see that her constant attempts to correct and "improve" her children end up as nagging. Tom, played by Roy Hamlin, is an embryonic poet trapped in a job in a shoe warehouse, and Laura, who is lame, is painfully shy - she is portrayed by Jacque Dowell. The work is directed by veteran Elaine Edstrom, and she has brilliantly created the sense of family so crucial to the drama's success.
And Edstrom has found the rich humor in the play, provided chiefly by Hamlin, who most entertainingly deals with his domineering mother and dead-end job. Hamlin's performance is virtually flawless, and lets us sense the potential for triumph in Tom's frustrated life. The action of the play is simple - the central event is Tom bringing home a friend from work, Jim O'Connor, portrayed by Patrick Barton with a rhythm and grace that plays beautifully in a long, key scene lit by candles. The performances of both Hamlin and Barton are memorable.
Jacque Dowell captures the shyness and innocence of Laura, and is effective in her climactic scene with Jim, but her shyness comes across as close to pathological as opposed to deep insecurity. We never see the ethereal charm of Laura's fantasy life, and the spark that moves O'Connor to admiration glows but dimly. Nora Hahn gives us a compelling Amanda, but the Southern charm seems by rote, and unconvincing. The secret to the play is that all the characters are admirable - that was the genius of Tennessee Williams. Amanda is a courageous woman, too nostalgic for her past, but by no means a figure of fun.
This was forgotten by director Edstrom, who permitted Amanda to appear in Act Two in an ancient-pink-elaborate-formal-gown from her youth, looking like Glinda the Good Witch of the South in The Wizard of Oz, and incessantly waving a fan instead of a wand. Though Amanda is meant here to be inappropriately over-dressed, my heart sank at this over-the-top parody, as patrons around me gasped, and I heard an audible "Oh, my God!" This is not a minor flaw, as it exchanges shimmering magic for a cheap laugh.
The set design by Lisa Garza works well, though the pantomime of opening and closing an imaginary window and door is a tedious and distracting quasi-solution to the need to include a fire-escape porch. There are problematic directorial choices besides the pink gown - presenting Tom's memory monologues on film upstage considerably weakens their poetic power, and projections that tell the audience what is happening are intrusive and unnecessary. These lapses are surprising, since Edstrom has solved so well the more difficult problems of this powerful play, as fragile in its way as the glass unicorn that plays a part. The Houston Family Arts Center should be praised for reviving this American classic.
A sensitive though flawed production revives a beautiful, compelling classic with most of its magic intact, while a veteran director and exceptional cast capture the rich humor of family dynamics. Some strong performances create theatrical magic, and make this a must-see production.
The Glass Menagerie continues through Oct. 14, from the Houston Family Arts Center, 10760 Grant Road. For ticketing or information, call 281-685-6374 or contact www.houstonfac.com.