The Glass Menagerie

The Hypocrites give new life to Tennessee Williams’ 72-year-old classic.

Joanne Dubach as Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, directed by Hans Fleischmann, at the Den Theatre.
Joanne Dubach as Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, directed by Hans Fleischmann, at the Den Theatre.
(courtesy of The Hypocrites)

Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie is a warhorse of a play, one of those titles that's household-name familiar, even for households that rarely venture out to see live theater. Since its premiere in Chicago more than 70 years ago, the tragedy of the Wingfield family has become so familiar that any staging of it runs the risk of being stale.

However, the word "stale" is the last thing that comes to mind in the Hypocrites mesmerizing take on Williams' much-produced classic. Directed by Hans Fleischmann, the production comes as a revelation, no matter how many times you've seen the show. Fleischmann also plays Tom, leading his cast through a reimagined Menagerie that will leave you breathless. It's one of those rare shows where 30 seconds in, your eyes widen with the realization you are watching something truly groundbreaking.

Williams' characters are indelible: Amanda Wingfield (Kate Buddeke) is desperately clinging to her distant Southern girlhood where she was the belle of the ball. Those days are long gone, as is the man she married, who walked out on her. Amanda now lives in near squalor in St. Louis, desperately struggling to ensure her daughter, Laura (Joanne Dubach), has a future. But Laura is damaged, perhaps beyond repair. She's cripplingly shy, becoming violently ill if she has to so much as take a typing test. The family is supported (barely) by Laura's brother, Tom (Fleischmann), a wild-eyed dreamer whose feral restlessness is about to propel him away from his family and literally plunge them into darkness.

Unfolding behind the scrim of Tom's memory, The Glass Menagerie's deceptively simply plot focuses on a disastrous blind date between Laura and the "Gentleman Caller" (Zach Wegner), Tom's former classmate and fellow warehouse employee whom he reluctantly brings home to dinner. Fleischmann's concept gives us Tom telling the story from a distant future, one where he is ragged, filthy, homeless and – more than anything else – haunted. He enters rambling like a street person in the depths of mental illness. As he paces the stage in a tattered, grimy coat, he radiates the exhaustion and terror of someone pursued by demons. His words, initially no more than the babblings of a man who long ago severed ties with reality, begin to make devastating sense.

Everything onstage unfolds as a fever dream trapped in Tom's mind, Laura and Amanda becoming figments of an unstable imagination. Fleischmann's staging merges gritty realism with ghostly memory with exquisite results.

This is Tom's show, and Fleischmann gorgeously captures the torturous longings of a sensitive soul crushed by the monotony of warehouse work and a domineering mother who micromanages his life right down to the way he chews his food. Fleischmann's Tom is at once bursting with rage and engulfed by sorrow and guilt throughout. He may succeed in physically escaping St. Louis, but he's pursued by furies that will never allow him to find peace.

Buddeke's Amanda is an object of scorn and pity. When she flutters and flirts like an ingenue, she's as grotesque as she is tragic. Buddeke also instills Amanda with a spine of steel. She's vain and ridiculous and deluded when she plays the Southern coquette, but she's also a survivor. Amanda is barely a step away from drowning, but she'll go down fighting till her last breath.

Dubach gives Laura a sweet, bell-voiced innocence and a loveliness that shines through, even when Laura is at her most distraught. There’s a subtly luminous joy to Dubach’s performance: When she admires her precious glass figurines, there’s a peace and wonder in her expression. Contrasted with that childlike tranquility, Laura’s shyness all the more devastating.Her happiness is as fragile as the tiny unicorn she holds dear, and just as irrevocably shattered.

If Amanda is the fire-, drought-, and famine-proof weed springing up between cracks in the street, Laura is the fragile hothouse lily that could be crushed by a small breeze.

Set designer Grant Sabin has filled the stage with hundreds of glass objects in a rainbow of colors. They're all slightly dusty, so when Matt Gawryk's extraordinary lighting design kicks in, the stage glows with a muted twinkle that looks like an infinite number of stars. Paul Dezeil's projections play out on grimy laundry pinned to clothespins, the images both evoking Amanda's long-gone husband, Laura's childhood bout with pleurisy, and Tom's endless hours at the movies. Throughout, Daniel Knox's original score and Aaron James Stephenson's sound design provide a layer of subtle, sonic richness that enhances the mood so subtly it's almost subliminal.

If you've never seen The Glass Menagerie before, the Hypocrites staging will leave you emotionally spent and in awe of Williams' ability to capture raw, human emotion. Even if you've seen it too many times to count, you'll be knocked flat by just how urgently it still resonates.

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The Glass Menagerie

Closed: March 6, 2016