Tennessee Williams' classic play The Glass Menagerie (1945), certainly his most personal work and, perhaps, his best, is not known for skidding off the rails. But 4th Wall Theatre Company's production careens dangerously close to the edge. I have suspicions why it doesn't move us as it should, why its fragile nature isn't forefront, or why we watch it as if reading something good for us, yet not involved in its special story of a very personal tragedy.
Menagerie was Williams' first success; it made his name and fortune. In a few years, he followed it with a string of hits (A Streetcar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo, Cat on a Hot Tine Roof, Orpheus Descending, Sweet Bird of Youth, and Night of the Iguana) that rejuvenated Broadway and put him on the cover of Time Magazine, earned him multiple theater accolades, and two Pulitzer Prizes for drama. He will always be a titan of the theater, yet his later works display a disheartening downward spiral. Drugs and alcohol took their toll, and he could never match those first two decades of fiery creativity. Ah, but those early years!
Menagerie holds a special place in the Williams canon. Definitely his most personal work, it's a naked, if poetic, treatment of his dysfunctional family: mother, sister, and himself. Dad abandoned the family long ago, leaving wife Amanda and children, Laura and Tom, in a dilapidated apartment overlooking an alley in St. Louis. Shabby gentility is Amanda's fate. Facing life as best she can manage, she thrives on her faded dreams as a former coquette and debutante.
Three years later, Williams will morph Amanda into a more desperate, delusional Blanche in Streetcar, but in Menagerie, she's more relatable and sadly sympathetic. She slips easily into her past youthful reveries of her 17 beaux amid soft fragrant evenings by the lake, but she's still grounded in the sordid present. She wants the best for her children, not realizing that shy, backward Laura is beyond her machinations for an imaginary “gentleman caller,” and that son Tom is straining to escape his stifling existence and her insistent nagging. He, too, has his own gentlemen callers, but he finds them in the movie house and drowns his unhappiness in too many bars on the way home.
Tom narrates this memory play, but it's Amanda who haunts it. Ever since iconic theater legend Laurette Taylor portrayed her at the premiere, Amanda has been a daunting role. Gertrude Lawrence (in the 1950 film version), Cherry Jones in a recent Broadway revival, Jessica Tandy, Katherine Hepburn, Maureen Stapleton, Julie Harris have all had a go at Amanda. All actors of a certain generation have said that Taylor's interpretation was utterly incandescent and transfixing. That doesn't fit here. Kim Tobin-Lehl, 4th Wall's co-artistic director and one of our city's most perceptive actors, can't quite settle into Amanda's interior life. There's a hesitancy to her performance, bumpy and full of wayward pauses that read like fluffed lines. The performance doesn't flow. Tobin-Lehl plays flighty well, she looks the part with upswept hair that she constantly fusses over, and her cotillion reverie does seem to knock years off her age, but the utter desperation of Amanda's dead-end existence doesn't come to the front.
Joseph “Joe P” Palmore, one of our exceptional young actors – he recently won the Houston Theater Award for Best Actor in 4th Wall's Jesus Hopped the A-Train – has a better time with Tom, bringing a soulful resignation to the role as he leads us into his indelible memories. He's had enough of his seedy life in St. Louis and he must break out to survive. He can't breathe in the stultifying apartment, besieged by his mother and pitiful sister. If he stays, he will calcify.
Noah Alderfer, as the Gentleman Caller, showers Jim with youthful exuberance, but he, too, doesn't completely plumb his character's quashed dreams from the glory days of high school. Destined to be the golden boy, he's not any better off than Tom. He spouts maxims from his night courses in Dale Carnegie-like public speaking, and for a moment brings Laura out of her shell, but we know he'll end up marrying fiancee Betty and probably staying at the shoe plant his entire life.
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So it's up to Faith Fossett, as introvert Laura, to steal the show. Williams throws most of Act II to her, and she runs with it with heartbreaking clarity. She's no ugly duckling, but she makes us believe she is with tight little fidgets, shy sideways glances, and a painful ungainly physicality. Here, in her finely etched performance, is the Glass Menagerie we hoped for. She is doomed, we know it, and Fossett shows us that Laura knows it, too. She will die in that decrepit apartment, playing with her menagerie of glass animals and living a life of quiet desperation. Laura is Williams at his most cruel, most poetic, and most real. Fossett takes your breath away.
The Glass Menagerie isn't beyond the capabilities of any of the artists involved. Director Philip Lehl neatly lets the play exude its own particular fragrant fragility, though the projection of Tom's writing, like intertitles, adds little insight. Designer Ryan McGettigan packs a shabby dining room, living room, and exterior fire escape into the intimate Spring Street space, and lighting wizard Christina Giannelli washes everything in dreamy candlelight or atmospheric, star-specked sky. Leah Smith's '30s costumes, from saddle shoes to organdy dress, fix the period, while Robert Leslie Meek's soundwork conjures the dance hall next door or approaching storm with a fine ear.
A defining work of the American stage, The Glass Menagerie peers into Williams' dysfunctional family with unsparing detail and unflinching truth. Tom must break away from his family if he is to live. Amanda and Laura could live, too, but they're glued in their own amber, unwilling and unable to free themselves. Tom must leave them behind. His curse is to remember them.
The Glass Menagerie continues through November 2 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; and 3 p.m. Sundays at 4th Wall Theatre Company at Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring Street. For information, call 832-767-4991 or visit 4thwalltheatreco.com. $17-$53.