'Glass Menagerie': Fragile and Beautiful
by Nelson Pressley
March 27, 1997
When it comes to staging Tennessee Williams' plays, there is no safe middle ground. You can tell in a matter of moments whether the actors and designers have managed to get all the way inside Williams' singular lyrical world; either the show is being brought off with light poetry and firm authority or it isn't.
Director Tim Vasen's production of "The Glass Menagerie" at Baltimore's Center Stage puts you at ease right away. Tony Straiges' set, with its fire escapes, floating windows and spacious blue floor, is bathed in hazy blue-grays and faded golds by lighting designer Jeremy Stein. Mr. Stein also casts a blue glow around the edge of the entire theater, bringing the audience into the play's mists of memory.
The milieu is effective and so is the acting. As Tom Wingfield, within whose memory "The Glass Menagerie" takes place, Robert Sean Leonard speaks with the measured, weary cadences of a tired Southern poet. As the relentlessly meddling Amanda (Tom's mother), Pamela Payton-Wright fiddles and blathers with an insidious, tireless Old World graciousness that drives Tom nuts.
The play may be about Laura, Tom's mildly handicapped older sister, but the show belongs to Tom and Amanda for the first hour. Mr. Leonard and Miss Payton-Wright build the pressure expertly; Mr. Leonard's Tom slumps and broods as he fights off Amanda's unbearable scrutiny, and Miss Wright's ever-worried Amanda barely pauses for breath as she dominates every conversation without being transparently rude.
Life in the house is tense. Tom's and Laura's father fled long ago; Tom himself is ready to leave his dreary warehouse job to discover the world and find himself as a writer. Amanda wants Tom to help find someone to take care of odd, apparently helpless Laura before he goes, so Tom arranges for Jim O'Connor, a co-worker at the warehouse, to drop by for dinner one night.
This is the "gentleman caller" Amanda has long hoped for. She overdoes things, naturally (costume designer Tom Broecker puts her in a fancy, frilly old gown that makes Amanda look like a refugee from a wedding cake). Still, something happens between Laura and Jim when they are left alone; the cycle of hope and heartbreak in their long scene together is the essence not only of this play, but of much of the Williams canon.
As Jim, Jon Brent Curry has the Teflon charm of an All-American boy who refuses to believe he is going nowhere. Katie MacNichol's Laura is as fragile as the tiny glass figures she collects. Her quivers and stammerings are sometimes hard to take, but she and Mr. Curry create a palpable warmth together.
They also have a light touch with the Williams imagery (which compares the shy, misfigured Laura to a broken glass unicorn, and to blue roses). This is the strength of Mr. Vasen's production, which leaves us with one character howling angrily under a luscious full moon and a line of drying laundry - a Williams-like combination of dreamy fantasy and plain reality if ever there was one.