Michelle Federer and Mare Winningham
in The Glass Menagerie
(© Craig Schwartz)
Michelle Federer and Mare Winningham
in The Glass Menagerie
(© Craig Schwartz)
Great acting, sensitive direction, and classic writing make for an unforgettable theatrical experience as San Diego's Old Globe Theatre presents Joe Calarco's beautifully nuanced production of Tennessee Williams' autobiographical memory play The Glass Menagerie in its intimate Cassius Carter Centre Stage, where no audience member is more than five rows from the stage.

Indeed, one could practically sit down to dinner with the Wingfields if they had a mind to, although whether they would want to break bread with the family's officious matriarch Amanda (played by a commanding Mare Winningham), who attempts to dictate every moment and every movement of her two grown children, is another matter.

As Amanda, who regales her children with tales of her past glories one moment and tries to instill in them the proper technique of masticating their food the next, Winningham runs the gamut of emotions, hitting each one perfectly. She's easily believable as the flirtatious young belle of Blue Mountain, entertaining 17 gentleman callers on one memorable afternoon. But her lifelong bitterness of having chosen the wrong beau -- a telephone man who fell in love with long distance and later abandoned his family, is equally palpable. She now lives through her children, the dreamy Tom (Michael Simpson) and the emotionally and physically damaged daughter Laura (Michele Federer), and their directionless lives leave her sad and disappointed.

Tom (Michael Simpson), the narrator of the piece and Williams' stand-in, is a young man looking for adventures at the movies and in life and in his scribblings of poetry, but oppressed by his lackluster job in a shoe warehouse. His guilt and angst for his eventual abandonment of his family will haunt him forever, and Simpson's portrayal is particularly visceral, as his Tom wrestles with bigger demons than most.

As Laura, Federer essays an ethereal wisp of a shy, damaged young woman. Her crippled leg, really only a slight defect as her mother constantly tells her, has crippled her spirit more than her body, and her shyness, her insecurities, her social awkwardness is beautifully realized in Federer's heartbreaking performance. Kevin Isola lights up the stage and this dour family's existence as Jim, Tom's co-worker and Laura's unwitting "gentleman caller." He plays the role with such gusto and brio that you can easily believe this golden boy will achieve everything he sets his mind to.

The candlelit scene (helped by magical lighting by Chris Lee) between Laura and Jim is always a highpoint of the play, and never more so than it is here. As staged by Calarco on Michael Fagin's central playing area of the Wingfield's apartment, the scene is breathtaking. Isola's charm slowly melts Federer's shyness until Laura brightly glimmers from within. Their chemistry is so spot on that you dearly wish for a happy ending, even as one knows it is not to be.