The Glass Menagerie -- Theater Review

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What would Tennessee Williams think about director Gordon Edelstein's reconceived production of his beautiful memory play "The Glass Menagerie"?

My hunch is Williams would be knocked out by the transformation Edelstein has wrought. Nothing that seriously matters about the play -- the poetry, the pathos , the delicacy -- has been sacrificed, but a great deal has been gained in reframing the story of the Wingfield family. This feels like a version of the play that always has been implicit in the writing, finally set free to plumb even greater depths.

In this production, which made its debut at the Long Wharf Theater, where Edelstein is artistic director, Tom (Patch Darragh) no longer is a phantom-like narrator floating in and out of the action as he remembers scenes from his painful past in St. Louis. The play has been reset in a shabby New Orleans hotel room where Tom is a writer struggling to come to terms with himself, his art and his past in the only way he knows how -- through words that stream from his mind under the pressure of memory. This gives an immediacy and urgency to the scenes that makes them even more compelling. It also makes Tom as central to the play as his overpowering mother, Amanda (Judith Ivey), if not more so.

Edelstein has reinforced this concept by expanding Tom's presence in each scene he inhabits. At times, he's in both locations simultaneously, past and present, each dimension fluidly intersecting with the other. His memories are visceral as he struggles to set them down on paper.

Ivey's Amanda is a fascinating creation. First and foremost she's a mother desperate to make the best of a near-hopless situation; her daughter Laura (Keira Keeley) is pathologically shy, and Tom can't wait to escape Amanda and his dead-end job. This Amanda also is something of a drama queen, taking genuine pleasure in her ability to rise above the dire circumstances by whatever means available, including an elaborate self-regard as well as an abundance of wit dipped in homespun irony. As overbearing, meddlesome and garrulous as she is, one never doubts for a moment her passionate love for her children.

The Gentleman Caller scene in Act 2 is almost unbearably poignant. Ben McKenzie walks a fine line between genuine sympathy -- even affection -- for Laura and his brash desire to sell himself to whomever he's talking to and perhaps improve them in the bargain. After he impulsively kisses Laura, it's a nice touch to watch him become the shy one as she momentarily feels desired and takes in the experience.

This might be the funniest "Menagerie" you'll ever see. The scenes between Tom and Amanda play almost like vaudeville sketches at times as both actors have the skill to inflect their lines with amusing emotional commentary on their locked-in relationship. This is the best kind of character humor.

Edelstein's staging also points up in a fresh way the intimate connection between life and art. We literally can see Tom transforming the most painful parts of his life into something meaningful and, as the play itself demonstrates, even transcendent.
Williams would have approved.

Venue: Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles (Through Oct. 17)
Cast: Judith Ivey, Patch Darragh, Keira Keeley, Ben McKenzie
Playwright: Tennessee Williams
Director: Gordon Edelstein
Set designer: Michael Yeargan
Lighting designer: Jennifer Tipton
Costume designer: Martin Pakledinaz
Sound designer: David Budries
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