Tennessee's Triumph

LTW may not fully realize 'The Glass Menagerie,' but the company treats it with care and devotion

Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie is a great play because, in part, the author knows when to stop just short of writing a bad play. (Actually, this is not something than can be said of Williams in every phase of his career.)

Consider: One of the characters is a high-strung ex-Southern belle, whose shabby life she magnifies into melodrama. The main male character is, god help us, a sensitive poet-type standing in for the author himself. The script's language itself is poetic and lyrical, but with just a few more curlicues, it would be as dated as Maxwell Anderson. The symbolism is sometimes not subtle (a little glass unicorn represents its beautiful but mildly freakish collector, and when its horn breaks off, well, talk about your emasculation fantasies). And, fundamentally, it's a play about an absent-father family that falls apart because the daughter can't get a date.

So to say that Live Theatre Workshop's production of this classic play is restrained is to hint that certain elements of the script aren't fully realized, but also to announce that Williams is being saved from self-inflicted parody.

Along an alley in St. Louis in the 1930s, we find a shabby apartment occupied by Amanda Wingfield and her adult daughter, Laura, and son, Tom. Amanda, long ago a highly sought-after Mississippi Delta belle, made the mistake of marrying a man who would abandon her; he escaped some 16 years before the play's action, and now only his photo on the wall remains (in this production, it's a picture of director Jeremy Thompson, not grinning nearly as much as the script indicates). Amanda by now is what Williams describes as a "woman of great but confused vitality clinging frantically to another time and place."

Laura, the daughter, is physically and emotionally crippled; since a childhood illness, she has walked with a slight limp, and she has come to think of herself as defective, and she is painfully shy. She, too, clings to another time and place, playing her father's old phonograph records and losing herself in the fantasy land of her collection of little glass animal figurines.

Tom, the son, would be a poet, but he is trapped in a dead-end warehouse job. He is the host of this memory play, and he is, in effect, Tennessee Williams, who based these characters on members of his own family.

Amanda endlessly reminisces about her youth adorned with jonquils and gentlemen callers. She would like nothing more than for Laura to attract callers and, ultimately, a good husband of her own, but Laura is incapable of connecting with the outside world. Tom is enlisted to help; if he can match her up with someone, then he will be free to pursue his own life instead of supporting the family through menial work.

So, ultimately, Tom brings home a friend from work, Jim, something of a smooth operator but a "normal" person who may just do Laura some good.

Williams stressed the importance of music and lighting in this episodic, not entirely realistic play (he has the actors mime certain actions, particularly anything having to do with eating). And those are the weakest elements of LTW's production; the lighting effects are sometimes rudimentary, while the musical cues seem only intermittently effective.

What's best about this production, though, is Cynthia Jeffery's Amanda. Jeffery can be suitably domineering, but she avoids the asinine giddiness we associate with this type of Southern female character. She performs always with an eye to the "dignity and tragic beauty" Williams asks of Amanda in the final scene.

Equally fine is the Laura of Sybille Bruun. She doesn't make the fatal mistake, as in the current Broadway production, of playing Laura as mentally retarded. She's odd, yes, and pathologically shy, but she's not hopelessly far from whatever "normal" may be. Just look at how Bruun holds her slightly open, downturned mouth, and that's all you need to see Laura as fundamentally sickly and pale. Then watch her perform for a while, and you have to be moved by her fragility, timidity and, most importantly, resignation.

Matt Walley is a relatively soft Tom, poised on the fire escape with little apparent desire to scramble down it, offering his narration gently, a little flat of inflection save for his New Orleans accent. Clearly, this is a man driven only with difficulty to outbursts against his mother; there's little sense of volatility in Walley's performance, except when he is required to raise his voice, and we don't quite choke up over his final monolog.

Meanwhile, Kevin Lucero Less as Jim, the gentleman caller, skips in with all the healthy vivacity that this household lacks. He's engaging and cocky, yet sidesteps the superficial self-regard that some actors allow this character to fall into. And although he arrives only late in the play, Lucero (with no little help from Bruun) pulls the evening's focus to his big scene near the end when, almost against his will, Jim begins to make a real connection with Laura.

So we have a Glass Menagerie wiped clean of its potential mannerisms, given a display that perhaps doesn't allow every element its needed sparkle, yet its figures have been arranged with care and devotion.