The Glass Menagerie Glows

Maedell Dixon is a standout Amanda in Tennessee Williams' masterpiece at Arizona Rep

When writers spin their wheels trying to express themselves, when they flail about searching for ideas with resonance, struggling mightily to find their voice, they are often told to write what they know.

It certainly worked for a boy named Tom whose only sister was emotionally crippled by what turned out to be schizophrenia. His love for Rose and his guilt over not being able to make her life better resulted in The Glass Menagerie, a play steeped in autobiographical pain.

Without Rose, there would be no Glass Menagerie, which in 1944 became the first major work from the haunted dramatist now calling himself Tennessee Williams.

The playwright, who twice won the Pulitzer Prize (for A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) never knew a world without Rose, who was born before him and outlived him by more than a dozen years. But the sweet woman didn't have much of a life, especially after a disastrous lobotomy that left her institutionalized until her death.

The director Elia Kazan, who guided some of Tennessee Williams' best work to the stage and screen, once said that "Everything in his life is in his plays, and everything in his plays is in his life."

The autobiography is unmistakable in The Glass Menagerie, which opened on Broadway 69 years ago and was immediately recognized as a masterpiece. It won the New York Drama Critics' Circle award for best play of the season.

It's back on the Great White Way now in an acclaimed revival starring Zachary Quinto as Tom and the great Cherry Jones as the matriarch Amanda Wingfield, a faded Southern belle who worries endlessly about the future when she's not living in the past.

In Arizona Repertory Theatre's production at the UA's Tornabene Theatre, Amanda is played with fierce precision by Maedell Dixon. In her hands, Amanda is an unstoppable force of nature who loves her children with a scary intensity that sometimes looks like hate. There's nothing quiet about her desperation.

Abandoned by her adventure-seeking husband years ago, she's obsessed with finding a suitor for her daughter Laura (Kathleen Cannon), a fragile and morbidly shy beauty who finds comfort in her collection of glass animal figurines.

Laura's brother, Tom (Paul Michael Thomson), is the family's tortured breadwinner, an aspiring writer who longs to escape his menial job at the shoe factory. Tired of hearing his histrionic mother fret about finding a gentleman caller for Laura, he invites a guy from the factory home for dinner.

The man's name is Jim O'Connor (Joey Rudman) and if he seems unnaturally handsome and charismatic, there's a reason for that. Like everything else in the play, he materializes from the thin air of Tom's memory.

Truth be told, Jim probably wasn't that good-looking, Laura probably wasn't that pretty and Amanda probably wasn't so unrelenting in her desire to rewrite the writing on the wall.

Tom, in fact, warns us not to trust everything we see. At the beginning of the play, which at the UA is staged in the round, he yanks the covers off the furniture and tells us not to expect realism. With the dust still hanging in the air, his ghosts appear.

Director Brent Gibbs and his designers create an atmosphere somewhere between brutal representation and artful suggestion. The four actors likewise find the sweet spot where emotions are heightened and grounded at the same time.

The role of Amanda is an invitation to overact that's never accepted by Dixon, a guest artist with laser-sharp focus and a commanding presence. She makes Amanda's every utterance a tactical move. You can't take your eyes off her face, a life-hardened mask of myriad emotions. And when Amanda turns on the charm, which long ago turned into brittle muscle memory, you can almost believe that she once attracted 17 gentlemen callers in a single day.

Laura, in contrast, often sinks into the background—you almost don't notice her at first, which feels right. But she comes into sharp and lovely focus during the long, exquisite scene she shares with her gentleman caller, played so perfectly by Rudman. Cannon gives Laura an open expression, with searching eyes that reveal flickers of hope and despair.

Thomson sees to it that Tom, our narrator, is a sincere, likable fellow. Thomson's interactions with the other actors always have heart and spontaneity, although the same can't quite be said of his monologues directed at the audience.

But Thomson beautifully communicates the biggest truth of all about Tom: the enormity of the love he felt for his sister and the soul-crushing knowledge that his love was not enough.