Written in 1944, "The Glass Menagerie" was Tennessee Williams' first success, launching him on a career as one of the greatest American playwrights of all time. Today, 60 years later, there's still no denying the play's power and artistry, even in a less than ideal production by San Jose Stage Company. Instead of creating four complex characters, James Reese directs his talented cast in somewhat one-dimensional portrayals.
Part of the problem involves casting. Randall King, the company's artistic director, plays Tom, the quasi-autobiographical character who serves as narrator in this memory play. Perhaps a slightly younger actor would be more suitable, but the larger issue is that he is directed to play Tom as too much the drunkard. Moreover, Tom should be seen as a poet who happens to work in a warehouse, not as a warehouse worker who happens to write poetry.
Maureen McVerry plays his mother, Amanda, a Southern belle who married a telephone company worker who deserted her and their two children, leaving them in poverty in St. Louis. Amanda, one of the great female characters of the American theater, constantly tries to push her now-adult children, Tom and Laura (Chloë Bronzan), to better themselves. She also seems to live in the past, endlessly prattling about her genteel girlhood in the South, where she had gentlemen callers galore. But beneath the talking and the pushing there's a mother who genuinely loves her children. She wants them to do well, but she realizes they have difficulty coping with everyday life, and she's terribly afraid of what might happen to them. The youthful, vivacious McVerry needs to portray her as more faded, more caring and more despairing. She's not directed that way, but she's still the dominant character in this play.
Bronzan's portrayal of Laura is closer to the character. Painfully shy and self-conscious because of a limp, Laura has essentially retreated into her own world: a collection of tiny glass animals (hence the title) and some scratchy Victrola records that belonged to her father.
The most complete characterization comes from Bill Olson as Jim, the gentleman caller, one of Tom's co-workers at the warehouse. Unbeknownst to Jim, Amanda has invested much energy and emotion in his coming to the Wingfield home for dinner one night. She sees him as Laura's only hope. A friendly, talkative man, he sees the evening as just an opportunity for dinner and casual conversation. However, he's kind to Laura, bringing her out of herself more than anyone else, then unintentionally dashing her hopes.
Violinist Timothy Kovatch, playing music by Nick Flynn, adds to the atmosphere created by set designer Ching-Yi Wei, costume designer Michele Wynne, light designer Maurice Vercoutere and sound designer Andy Hohenner.
"The Glass Menagerie" is such a great, thought-provoking play that not even some directorial missteps can undermine it.
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