Keira Keeley and Judith Ivey
in The Glass Menagerie
(© T. Charles Erickson)
Keira Keeley and Judith Ivey
in The Glass Menagerie
(© T. Charles Erickson)
One of the most enduringly powerful plays in the American canon, Tennessee Williams' 1944 masterpiece The Glass Menagerie really doesn't need reimagining. However, Long Wharf Theatre artistic director Gordon Edelstein -- who evidently felt the urge to come up with a fresh interpretation -- has chosen to center the action not in "an alley in St. Louis" but in a New Orleans hotel room where the fledgling playwright is struggling to hammer out his script. (Few scenarios are more boring than watching a writer write.) Still, Williams' text emerges not just tamper-proof, but as transporting as ever, due in part to Judith Ivey's performance as a singularly robust Amanda Wingfield.

Instead of an edgy Tom Wingfield who lurks at the periphery of his remembered past in self-imposed exile, we get an earnest young man (Patch Darragh) looking as dull and industrious as a traveling salesman. The room he now resides in, though dispiritingly brown-on-brown, is huge. Even after his mother, Amanda (Ivey) and sister Laura (the concomitantly fragile Keira Keeley) materialize from behind a wallpaper scrim to impose their presence, the spacious set -- designed by Michael Yeargan -- works at cross purposes with the cramped, desperate household that Williams so brilliantly summoned. It's almost as if Edelstein were intent on reinserting the barriers that Williams inventively erased.

Edelstein also doesn't deliver a standard Amanda. In Ivey's fierce yet earthy portrayal, you see more of her enterprising side and a lot less of the neurasthenic Southern aristocrat manqué who would eventually resurface as Blanche. She's thoroughly can-do, hustling ladies' magazine subscriptions over the phone and burning with a determination to get her children -- whose defects she fully acknowledges -- safely launched outside nest. No matter how hard she strives to put a positive spin on their situation, you can see the gritty realism that keeps her on the march.

Ivey's portrayal finds a resonant match in Josh Charles's "gentleman caller" Jim O'Connor. Decked out in a three-piece suit -- Martin Pakledinaz's costuming is actually a bit much for a shoe warehouse clerk -- he's a man on the make in the Dale Carnegie mode, every bit the up-and-comer Amanda envisioned. Charles endows Jim with an extra measure of empathy as well: in a scene of heart-breaking intimacy (magically lit by Jennifer Tipton in a convincing simulacrum of mere candlelight), he seems not just an obtuse self-improvement buff but possibly something of a kindred soul. When he advises her Laura that all she needs is somebody to build her confidence up, the irony -- she's got Amanda doggedly doing just that -- is all but unbearable.

Keeley has the broken body language down, but her Southern accent is shaky, occasionally shading into South Bronx. Darragh is just too white-bread as Tom; his pouts and stomps and high-pitched protests are too stereotypically adolescent. There's no hint of a possibly louche hidden life outside the confines of the Wingfields' faux-genteel domesticity. When Amanda accuses Tom of lying about going to the movies -- "I think you're doing things you're ashamed of," she cries -- no subtext suggests itself. Fortunately, Williams bared his soul so well that it's still all on the page -- and unquashable on the stage.