There are rich rewards in even the most routine presentation of Tennessee Williams' 1944 classic The Glass Menagerie. Phoenix Theatre's production of Williams' autobiographical drama is proof that almost nothing can dim this story's enduring appeal. Williams' timeless people -- the Southern belles and gentleman callers of the playwright's own life -- may be too fragile to tackle life's cruelties, but they're also too well-written to be overcome by oddball casting and peculiar readings.
Williams recalls his early life here in the story of Tom Wingfield, a would-be poet and breadwinner for his impoverished family. Tom loves and resents his delusional mother Amanda and emotionally and physically crippled sister Laura, whose collection of glass figurines is a metaphor for her family's easily broken spirits.
Patti Davis Suarez's Amanda is a singular creation, more robust and daffy than the conniving woman written by Williams and made famous by Laurette Taylor, Jessica Tandy, and Julie Harris. This Amanda is eccentric and funny, a lovable, faded belle who's equal parts Fay Bainter and Dodie Goodman. Suarez's warm performance is persuasive and eventually wins us over, thus dooming the play. We're meant to despise Amanda, so that Tom's departure is a reprieve, not merely a rejection. We need to believe that this monster mother drove both her son and her husband away, but we're left instead to question Tom's selfish exit.
This failure belongs to director Karla Koskinen, who guided Suarez's fluttery and not unpleasant performance. Koskinen is aided by costumer Liz Ihlenfeld, whose take on the all-important cotillion dress Amanda dons in the second act is campy and unsubtle. Amanda's faded gown is meant to signal a sad retreat into her past, but Ihlenfeld's clownish design is a punch line here, and Amanda becomes the joke.
Christopher Corts gives an exaggerated, actorly performance as Tom. Tom is written as a coarse and destructive man, a factory worker who dreams of becoming a writer. Corts carries his pompous reading of the narration, meant to evoke Williams, into the story itself, where he appears entirely out of place -- particularly alongside the more natural performance of Matthew Zimmerer. As the Gentleman Caller, Zimmerer strikes a delicate balance between this man's generous nature and arrogant posturing. His long scene with Laura toward the end of the evening is played with such unpretentious charm that we're glad for him when he finally escapes the Wingfields, who need him so desperately.
Zimmerer is good, but it's Laura Freeman's tremendous performance as Laura Wingfield that elevates this production. Laura's pathological shyness is usually played as cowardice, but Freeman, rather than cowering behind furniture, drags Laura into the light. Her round-eyed, childlike account of her empty life melts into a radiant ode to her glass collection that burns with joy. Rather than fidgeting and jerking, Freeman holds herself with such tender awkwardness that we see how deeply displaced Laura feels among the poised people around her.
Geof Eroe and Gregory Jay's magnificently surreal set establishes the memory play's dreamlike atmosphere. The floor of the Wingfield home is pitched at an alarming angle; its walls crowded by crazy shadows -- visible through transparent wallpaper -- that are cast by the music hall next door. Williams' staging instructions ("The scene is memory, and therefore nonrealistic; the interior is therefore rather dim and poetic") have rarely been so well realized.
Would that more of what took place on that set were as enchanting as Freeman's performance. That Williams' story still can captivate us, regardless of how it's read, is a testament to its author and to this ageless, resplendent story of fragile lives.
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