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In the preface to "The Rose Tattoo," Tennessee Williams wrote, "Truth is fragmentary, at best. We love and betray each other not in quite the same breath but in two breaths that occur in fairly close sequence. But the fact that passion occurred in passing … should not be regarded as proof of its inconsequence." It is this tension between love and betrayal and the resiliency and grace with which his characters navigate it that give his plays their power. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his first success, "The Glass Menagerie," currently being revived at the Grand Theatre.
"The Glass Menagerie" also pivots on another duality: the one between the nostalgia of memory and the harshness of reality, and it is in delicately balancing these two that this production really shines. Tom, its narrator, says, "I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion," and the collaboration between director Mark Fossen and the actors, anchored by Jayne Luke's luminous performance as Amanda, makes the nuances of this apparent contradiction work.
The play is largely autobiographical, a portrait of Williams' dysfunctional family: Amanda, the strong-willed mother whose desperately protective love often smothers her children; Laura, her painfully shy daughter, as fragile as her cherished glass collection; the restless son, Tom (Williams' real name), trapped in a tedious warehouse job and longing for adventure; and the absent father, "a telephone man who fell in love with long distance" and whose memory still haunts them. Amanda's determination to save Laura from spinsterhood prompts the arrival of the fourth character, Jim, a fellow worker Tom invites home for dinner and calls "the long delayed but always expected something that we live for."
Fossen's directorial touch is light and perceptive. Both acts begin with tableaus where Tom moves among the other characters. He is active, in the present, while they remain frozen, in the past of his memory, until he dismisses them. Transitions between past and present are clarified by shifts in Spencer Brown's soft, rosy lighting. The pace is leisurely but not labored; something always happens in the silences.
Luke's Amanda is relentless but never strident or shrill; even when she berates Tom, she retains an air of Southern gentility. Luke undercuts her strength with softness, and her flirtatious behavior with Jim reveals the charm of her lost youth. As Laura, Lauren Noll walks a fine line between self-consciously shy and neurotic. In her responses, especially to Jim, we catch glimpses of the person she could be with more confidence. John Graham matter-of-factly grounds the poetry of Tom's narrations and juggles his desperate drive to escape with genuine affection for his family. The apparent love that links the family gives this production added poignancy. As Jim, Matt Whittaker sidesteps the self-involved cockiness of many portrayals. We believe in his sincerity because he never plays the scene for laughs.
The raked stage and transparent walls of Gage Williams' spare set make all the action accessible. It's a nice idea to use playwright Williams' original screen legends, but they are difficult to see, and the glass menagerie isn't numerous or prominent enough. Brenda Van der Wiel's period costumes are perfectly attuned to character, especially Laura's "blue roses" dress. Joe Killian's music design enhances the play's dreamy quality.
The sparse attendance on opening night was disappointing. This articulate production of a timeless American classic merits much more attention.
'The Glass Menagerie'
Finely balanced performances and astute direction distinguish this moving production of Tennessee Williams' seminal family portrait.
When • Reviewed Jan. 19; continues Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. through Feb. 5, with 2 p.m. matinees Jan. 22 and 29. No performance Feb. 2.
Where • Grand Theatre, 1575 S. State St., Salt Lake City
Tickets • $8 to $24 with discounts for students, seniors, and groups. Call 801-957-3322 or visit http://www.the-grand.org.
Running time • Two hours and 25 minutes (including intermission)
Learn more • A conversation with author Margaret Bradham Thornton of Tennessee Williams Notebooks free and open to the public precedes the Jan. 27 performance at 6 p.m.