Arizona Theatre Company's The Glass Menagerie Builds a Story Around Story Building

I hesitate to describe the staging tricks that make Arizona Theatre Company's production of The Glass Menagerie so magnificent, for fear that detailing the ways in which director Juliette Carrillo has illuminated this graceful old warhorse will diminish its beauty for you when you go to see it. And you must go to see this production, even if — no, especially if — you've seen The Glass Menagerie before. Because Carrillo's deconstruction of Tennessee Williams' oft-told tale shines light into its darkest corners, in a production that's both an homage to and a dazzling reinterpretation of a story many of us know and love.

Carrillo has combined elements of both Williams' acting script and his "reader's version," the one most commonly taught to literature and theater students, and the result is an evening that is as much about telling a story as it is a tutorial in how that's done in the context of theater. Throughout Act One, as Tom Wingfield recalls his earlier life lived with his mother and sister, their family home — an alley apartment in 1930s St. Louis — is slowly assembled by stagehands and the actors themselves. It's an unsubtle but still captivating metaphor for the way any good story is built, as well as for the hope that we all have for Laura, the neurotic, crippled spinster at the center of this story.

I can offer no higher praise of Barbra Wengerd's Laura than this: Watching the actress break character to move scenery or place a prop, tossing aside her crutch and striding off stage, does nothing to diminish her performance as a "home girl" whose chance at happiness seems briefly real. Wengerd so completely captures Laura's fragile fear of life that not even stepping out of character can diminish its strength.

Noel Joseph Allain's performance as Tom has a looser, more contemporary feel than the other performances — something I didn't like at first, but one that ultimately proved a fine match for the more current look of this busted-out version of Williams' memory play. Catalina Maynard's Amanda is an aggressive mother hen whose angry determination is palpable, and whose outbursts are waiting just behind the soft Southern lilt in her voice. As Jim, Laura's "gentleman caller," Brian Ibsen strikes the perfect balance between naiveté and earnestness:an Arrow Shirt ad come to life.

These performances occur on a constantly shifting set (designed by Darcy Scanlin and constructed by ATC's own production staff) that is as much a character in the story as the people who appear on it. Both are lit magnificently by Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz, who understands and honors the importance of Williams' endless allusions to light refracted through glass. And what happens to that set in the moments following Laura's ruin is something worth seeing — something that will stay with you long after you leave the theater.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela

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