The Glass Menagerie may be the most frequently staged of any of Tennessee Williams' plays. The St. Louis references and setting are accurate and evocative. It's a play many theater-goers are familiar with.
So how does a company go about staging it without seeming merely to put the play on life support, pounding on its figurative chest and trying to breathe life into it? It's a major challenge, especially as we begin the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis with Williams' work is under public scrutiny. Upstream Theater has risen to the challenge with its version, which will run through May 15.
Director Phillip Boehm has given us a different Wingfield family - same characters, same conflicts, but a different aura. Theoretically, this is Tom Wingfield's play, the autobiographical character of the author. But functionally, it belongs to Amanda, the frightened, struggling, aging belle of a mother around whom the play revolves. Linda Kennedy's Amanda is less the termagant and schemer than she's usually played. Her charm is more real - the telephone calls soliciting subscriptions to a magazine sound almost conmpletely uncontrived, for instance. All this without masking the drive, indeed desperation, that motivates her every day - and every evening when her son comes home from his job at a warehouse.
Tom, Amanda's son, is J. Samuel Davis. Tom appears as the narrator, talking about the events in hindsight - this is, as Williams himself said, a memory play - and as a younger self. Davis' opening monologue as the narrator, shuffling and using a walker, is close to hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-the-neck, with the lines that are so familiar and now almost completely new. The whirl that changes him into a much younger man yields a guy almost completely beaten down by a job of drudgery, financial responsibility for the household and the urge, no, the need to write. But not quite altogether beaten down, no - his eruption to Amanda when it finally happens is a fierce, unrelenting flow of lava.
Sydney Frasure plays Laura, and she, too, is drawn from a different angle. This isn't the Jane Wyman-esque delicate flower of subtle emotion. Frasure's Laura allows us to see the total panic when she realizes who the evening's dinner guest will be and then, even more vividly, when he sits down to talk to her after dinner. These days she would be diagnosed as having severe social anxiety; this is clearly more than what even Tom, who clearly dotes on her, calls being "awfully shy".
It's frequently forgotten that The Gentleman Caller is also a character who's had a good deal of disappointment in his life already. He was a big man on campus at Soldan High School, destined, according to the yearbook, for great things. Now he, too, works at the warehouse, only a step higher up the ladder than Tom. Jason Contini's portrayal is neither deeply swaggering nor, towards Laura, patronizing. When he kisses Laura, it feels an honest gift he's giving, not a manipulation.
Boehm has deliberately chosen open casting, not just color blind - the cast is evenly divided racially - but beyond that. Frasure's vintage wheelchair is not just a prop, she has limited mobility. All this quickly becomes irrelevant in the story-telling, swept up in Joe Dreyer's background music (and occasionally Frasure's very good voice) and the lives we watch with renewed interest.
Forget the cliches. Go see this. Fine acting and a whole new vision of an old, familiar work.
The Glass Menagerie
through May 15
Kranzberg Arts Center
501 N. Grand Ave.