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The Glass Menagerie

Jennifer Dundas in The Glass Menagerie
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
The Kennedy Center's April-through-August "Tennessee Williams Explored" festival concludes with The Glass Menagerie. The best of the three Eisenhower Theater mainstage productions of time-honored Williams plays and one Terrace Theater mounting of far less well known one-acts, Menagerie achieves a delicate balance. Director Gregory Mosher and his cast, led by Academy Award winner Sally Field, deftly realize the wounded Wingfield. Shadings of character that might not be familiar to audiences who have seen less nuanced, harder-edged performances come into focus here.

The most obvious question is, "How does the actress who played Gidget and The Flying Nun handle one of the archetypical roles of American drama?" The answer is, "Surprisingly well." As Amanda, the faded Southern belle clinging to memories of a genteel past in a dingy St. Louis apartment with her two grown, troubled children in the 1930s, Field is not the matriarchal monster we so often see. She is supremely controlling, yes; but Field's low-key, slightly ironic performance keeps the woman emotionally accessible and allows us to see her eccentricity, sadness, and ultimate helplessness. This Amanda is frustrated that her children don't live up to her standards of gentility, not because she is domineering but because she is determined that they escape the grim life in which she and they have found themselves. She may be suffocating son Tom and daughter Laura but she does it because of an ineptly applied maternal sense rather than pathology. This Amanda doesn't realize why she drives everyone away, from her husband to her magazine subscription clients to the secretly-planning-to-depart Tom.

Field resists the temptation to overemote, her reined-in manipulation enhanced by her small physical stature. One of the few times when she lets loose is an oddly jarring moment: Literally chasing after Tom as he leaves the apartment, she beseeches him to bring home a "gentleman caller" for his forlorn, awkward sister, repeatedly shrieking "Will you? Will you? Will you?" at him until he has bounded out of sight and she is on all fours, yelling through the grate. This draws big laughs, which may not be what Williams intended; but it pays dividends later when Tom matter-of-factly announces that he has invited a friend from work to dinner. Field allows a flicker of satisfaction on her face as Amanda believes that her self-abasement has worked.

Mosher's vision, that the Wingfields are too fragile to deal with the brutal truths of their lives, is hardly groundbreaking. But, here, their disappointments have been muted by the passage of time as Tom, played by Jason Butler Harner, relates the story as a dimming memory. The family conflicts are sparks rather than the usual fireworks, the voices often hushed. The effect is to draw the audience closer for an unusually intimate and absorbing experience.

Corey Brill, Sally Field, and Jason Butler Harner in
The Glass Menagerie
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Under Mosher's guidance, the cast members have achieved a wonderful equilibrium of subtlety, irony, and intensity. As the slightly disabled Laura, who loses herself in her collection of glass animal figurines, Jennifer Dundas appears to waft back and forth during Act I as the emotional turbulence between mother and son roils the atmosphere of the small apartment, clinging to the apartment's structure and furnishings as if she were in danger of blowing away. But Dundas carefully calibrates Laura's gradual relaxation and emotional surrender during her sublime Act Two scene with Corey Brill as Jim O'Connor, the gentleman caller. Brill's Jim is engaging and likable, even though the character is unusually blunt. When the two are seated on the apartment floor, bathed in the soft candlelight of time-enhanced memory, Laura is quite pretty; we yearn for a miracle that we know won't happen for the vulnerable young woman who has come so far.

Harner has to pass back and forth from the "present" to the past as narrator and story participant. Relaxed in the narration, he quickly acquires a protective emotional shell in the presence of his mother and sister that makes him seem harder and less caring. He adds just enough edge to his voice to create subtext for his explanation that he spends his evenings "at the movies," letting us believe there is much he is not telling without hammering home the point.

Aaron Copp's lighting is frequently at odds with the dramatic ambiance of the production, calling attention to itself as it goes from dim to bright when truths are revealed and telegraphing Laura's emotional transition in Act II by changing the cool blue shades on the apartment walls to a warm red glow. John Lee Beatty's set is a study in subdued realism, all browns and muted colors, but Beatty does something odd with the portrait of the long gone Mr. Wingfield that hangs prominently on the upstage wall: He occasionally projects different pictures within the frame for unnecessary emphasis and, in one particularly unfortunate moment, has the father wink at the son who seems destined to follow in his dad's wandering footsteps. These, however, are small flaws in a captivating production that breathes new life into an old favorite.

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