The last professional revival of Tennessee Williams' seminal "The Glass Menagerie" seen in Boston was a 2001 production brought in to the ART from the Hartford Stage Co. A Michael Wilson effort, that show starred show-biz veteran Elizabeth Ashley in a mannered performance as Amanda and brat pack survivor Andrew McCarthy as Tom, the author's alter-ego. The most effective part of that production, predictably, was Newton-native Anne Dudek, who's otherwise not been seen locally since her school days, as a Laura with a glimmer of gumption. There have of course been high school and college productions about as per usual since the play is embedded in American Literature curriculums. The Lyric Stage's current production has opened just prior to "Menagerie"'s first return to Broadway in many a moon.
The Lyric's production, directed by Norton award-winner Eric C. Engel, features multiple award-winner Nancy E. Carroll as the faded southern belle and the current artistic director of the New African Company, triple award winner Vincent E. Siders, as the longing-filled erstwhile poet. The crippled sister is played by Harvard-grad Emily Sophia Knapp, last seen locally in Serban's "Pericles" at the ART. Jim, the gentleman caller, is embodied by Lewis Wheeler, who just finished touring a three-person reduction of "Cyrano" around to schools for the New Rep. This ensemble is more than capable of handling William's nostalgic diction, especially at a leisurely Southern pace.
It's the stylization of this production which sets it apart, and allows these four actors of varying backgrounds and experience to create a unique reading of this well-known play. The director has had IRNE winner Janie E. Howland create a set made almost entirely out of fire-escape steel, with a landing doubling as the family's dining table. The back wall of the three-quarter stage is covered with full-scale black and white photomontage of fire escapes. The Winfield's seem more caged than usual. There are almost no props and four wooden chairs are the only real furniture. The hand-cranked record player is merely heard, the glass animals are wholly imagined, and the father's picture is represented by a shaft of light aimed straight down into the middle of the stage. Most of the everyday props are mimed; the candlestick has no candles. Rafael Jean's costumes are appropriate, but no more than needed to suggest the period and the personae within-- Amanda's faded finery is not ridiculous but vaguely suggestive of her past. Scott Pinckney has kept the lighting clean and simple, while Jeremy Wilson has created a new soundscape to take the place of Paul Bowles' agitated strings which served the original.
Emphasizing the memory aspects of the script-- even to the extent of using reverb occasionally as Tom remembers his mother and sister-- this production has a feeling of distance which befits material rooted in a bygone past. But dramatic moments are often muted by the same quality. The missing props, gone from faded memory, constantly remind the audience of the theatrical nature of the occasion. It's a reading of the play that clarifies but may diminish William's painful, personal vision. The only scene that remains as strong as ever is Laura and Jim by candlelight, which seems a real interlude in an otherwise overly controlled tale. Amanda, despite Carroll's sincere efforts, doesn't get much beyond her son's memories of her as a person living too much in the past. Sider's himself adopts a somewhat neutral voice for much of the play, as if these memories are almost too difficult to recount. Why Tom is rehashing them, however, is not entirely clear. This actor's size and physical presence would allow him to dominate the stage, but his character's need to escape makes that quality irrelevant.
The desire to resurrect Williams, as the Huntington did last spring with "The Rose Tattoo," is perhaps going through a difficult phase. Tennessee's personalized world-view, his fervent romanticism, and the constraints under which he wrote, have become a bit quaint. This production will satisfy those who've seen too many pedestrian reenactments and can appreciate an almost concert presentation of an old favorite. It will be interesting to watch the fate of the production of "...Menagerie" about to open in New York, which will feature Dallas Roberts as Tom. This young actor-- currently playing clones in Churchill's "Traps"-- made a splash at the ART several seasons ago in Rapp's "Rapture." In any case, duplicating the special conditions surrounding the original production when middle-aged director Eddie Dowling chose to play Tom and faded Broadway legend Laurette Taylor returned to the stage to put her indelible stamp on Amanda remains difficult. But the American Theatre will keep trying, even if the result becomes a memory of a memory.
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