A Review

In The Glow Of Tarnished Memories

By R. J. Donovan

"The Glass Menagerie" has long ranked as one of the classics of American theater. Tennessee Williams' memory play of an oppressive life in St. Louis is carefully structured and thoughtfully written. The dreamlike story looks at family matriarch Amanda, who clings to her dignity while son Tom (the narrator) reluctantly serves as breadwinner and frail sister Laura retreats from the world, seeking comfort in her collection of little glass animals.

The semi-autobiographical connections to the actual Williams family make the play even more compelling. Tennessee's real name was Tom, he worked in a shoe factory (as does Tom in the play), and his sister's name was Rose (Laura has the nickname “Blue Roses” in the play).

The allure of each new production lies in what the company does with it.

The unadorned staging at Lyric Stage, directed by Eric C. Engle, can be both interesting and frustrating. Beginning with the flare of a match lighting a cigarette in the darkness, the production is dark and shadowy. Employing a number of dramatic sound and lighting effects, the action in the family’s small apartment is set against a stark backdrop of fire escapes. In turn, the only real set piece is an actual fire escape that, in addition to its practical purpose, doubles as an awkward dining room table. Everything else in the production is suggested, including the delicate glass menagerie of the title.

Nancy E. Carroll is Amanda, proud, nagging and determined to protect her fragile and crippled daughter Laura. She scrimps to send her to business school, only to learn that the painfully introverted girl deceived her, quit school because she was terrified of the tests and now idles her days away in parks and museums. With no friends and little contact with the outside world, she becomes as colorless and virtually invisible as the glass menagerie upon which she dotes.

Amanda regroups and decides that if the girl cannot work and support herself, then she will find a husband for her. She insists Tom invite a suitable friend to their home for dinner.

Carroll builds a convincing Amanda, strong-arming her children to mold them into people neither can be. She is also lost in her own memories of her days as a southern belle. In fact, when the possible suitor for Laura enters the scene, Amanda overpowers him too, fluttering and gushing as though hers was the hand up for grabs.

Vincent Earnest Siders is Tom, saddled with a job he detests in a shoe factory, anxious for a life of his own and caught in the trap of replacing the father who abandoned the family years ago. He escapes nightly to “the movies” in an attempt to avoid the suffocation he experiences at home.

The dynamic Siders has so morphed himself into the character of Tom that anyone who has seen him in other roles, (particularly last season's "Our Lady of 121st Street at SpeakEasy), may initially question if they're seeing the same actor.

Lewis Wheeler is the previously mentioned Gentleman Caller who winds up haplessly matched with Laura -- to disastrous results. Unbeknownst to either Tom or Amanda, the Gentleman Caller is the only person Laura ever had a crush on, years earlier in school.

As Laura, Emily Sophia Knapp comes across more as a dull homebody than a fragile, tragic and painfully self-conscious soul. Her meeting with the Gentleman Caller is a good example. Unable to escape the prospect of being face to face with the only person for whom she has felt something, someone so inhibited should be in a near psychotic panic. Yet when she is left alone with him, they sit together and chat amicably like they're sharing a chardonnay. It works against believability.
This pivotal scene is also frustrating due to its cramped staging. It’s played practically in the laps of the people in the front row -- despite the rest of the playing area being fairly empty.

Ultimately, Tom can no longer endure the suffocation of his lot. He follows in his father's footsteps and abandons his family in an act of self-preservation.

As the lights dim for the final time, Laura is frozen in the darkness, Amanda is doomed to her memories and Tom is unable to escape his.

"The Glass Menagerie" is at at Lyric Stage, 140 Clarendon Street in Boston through February 5. For information, call 617-437-7172.

-- OnStage Boston



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