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When Tennessee Williams wrote "The Glass Menagerie" in 1944, he wasn't sure it would be a success. Would people come to the theater to see a low-key, autobiographical portrait of a struggling family?
Time has resolved his doubts. Seventy years later, "The Glass Menagerie" remains one of Williams' most performed plays. A production is even currently playing on Broadway.
Why does the play continue to speak so movingly to an audience? The production now open at Pioneer Theatre Company reveals the answer.
Williams had the ability to fuse dramatic realism with a personal poetic vision that translated experience from his own life into powerful theater. As Tom, the play's narrator and Williams' alter ego, says, "I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion."
The play's characters are based on Williams' own dysfunctional family: Amanda, whose desperately protective love for her children threatens to smother them; her painfully shy daughter, Laura, as fragile as her cherished glass collection; her restless son, Tom (Williams' real name), trapped in a tedious warehouse job and longing to be a writer; and their absent father, "a telephone man who fell in love with long distance" and whose memory still haunts the family 16 years later. Amanda's determination to save Laura from a lonely life of spinsterhood prompts the arrival of the play's fourth character, Jim, a fellow worker Tom invites home for dinner and calls "the long delayed but always expected something that we live for."
Director Mary Robinson's gentle production thrives on the tension between the memory of then and the immediacy of now. As this production opens, Tom sits typing downstage; as he introduces the characters, Kirk Bookman's nostalgic, golden lighting illuminates them, and they come to life. He flows in and out of scenes, becoming a character in his own memories. When he's not in a scene, he watches quietly from the side. It is as if the playwright is creating the play as we watch, and that can't fail to draw us in.
All four actors' multilevel performances skillfully sidestep shallower ways of playing these characters. Nance Williamson's Amanda never disintegrates into a harpy; even at her shrill, nagging worst, her love and loyalty for her children are clear. She's taller than the usual Amanda, but her graceful movements carry an air of Southern gentility. Hanley Smith avoids turning Laura into a pathetic neurotic; her Laura just needs support and confidence to move toward independence. In the scene with her "gentleman caller," her expression hovers between optimism and loss as she begins to blossom, and then retreats. No matter how angry and frustrated Zachary Prince's Tom becomes with his situation, his affection for his mother and sister never wavers. He simply needs to find a way to make his dreams reality. And Logan James Hall's Jim never appears conceited or self-aggrandizing; he's full of enthusiasm and good intentions.
Jason Simms' cluttered living-room set and the yellow glow of the windows in the buildings that surround the Wingfields' apartment capture the oppressive anonymity of tenement life. Tracy Christensen's 1930s-era costumes are simple but fashionable; Laura's "blue roses" dress and Amanda's cotillion gown are perfectly in character. Joshua Hight's sound design features jazz music that appropriately sounds like old phonograph records.
"The Glass Menagerie" is sure to survive as long as family members continue to challenge and celebrate each other. As Amanda says, "All that we have to cling to is each other." The complexity and depth of the characterizations in this consummate production demonstrate why Williams' legacy as one of America's most profound playwrights will endure.
'The Glass Menagerie'
P The astute direction and complex, compassionate performances of Pioneer Theatre Company's production verify the ongoing timeliness of Tennessee Williams' timeless play.
When • Reviewed Oct. 21; plays Mondays-Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., with Saturday matinees at 2 p.m., through Nov. 5
Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. University St., Salt Lake City
Tickets • $25 to $44; $5 more on the day of the show; half price for students K-12 on Mondays and Tuesdays; 801-581-6961 or pioneertheatre.org
Running time • Two hours and 20 minutes (including an intermission)