A 'Glass Menagerie' That Cuts Deep

By Richard Green
In Culture

Tennessee Williams’ best-known play is a marvel of lyrical prose, and a haunting look at one family struggling through the Great Depression.

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Linda Kennedy, J. Samuel Davis photo by ProPhotoSTL.com

But in this newest staging, set (as usual) in St. Louis, director/producer Philip Boehm has tweaked the play in ways that are powerful and surprising.

Produced by Upstream Theatre as part of the first-ever STL Tennessee Williams Festival, dozens of little glass animals float above the set, a humble apartment; and the narrator is a very old version of Tom, the stand-in for the playwright himself. But as he hobbles inside, he magically becomes young again.

It matters not a whit that this Tom is played by black actor J. Samuel Davis—except that he’s so good, in his own level of intimacy, that he challenges us to approach even more closely than usual. And it is a great pleasure to see Linda Kennedy as his mother, Amanda, in a performance that is both honest and original.

But it’s the combination of factors, and something so unexpected about his recollection of his mother, that makes this giant of a play new again. Every misunderstanding is heightened, and every loss is multiplied.

This narrator develops an anguished layer of longing and regret; and Amanda’s usual stridency is almost a ruse, as we discover she really does wish for her children’ happiness, in spite of her powerful anxiety over their general air of resignation.

Mr. Davis (as Tom) alters our perception of time and loss and maturation, as Ms. Kennedy alters our concept of a mother’s fearsome love, in all its dimensions.

Sydney Frasure is Laura, the “crippled” daughter on-stage, and here she really is “differently abled,” as we might say now—confined to an old cane-back wheelchair, rather than just the usual “club-footedness” sort of thing. It adds a new layer of tenderness to all concerned.

But Ms. Frasure’s performance, recoiling at any intrusion, while also vaguely sardonic about her fretful mother, is entirely fascinating. When she’s caught in a lie, the sense of being beaten-down yet again is palpable.

Jason Contini is equally great as the “gentleman caller,” full of bonhomie and can-do attitude—even as he warns Tom he’s about to lose his own job. When he shows kindness to Laura, Ms. Frasure’s own inner dialog—barely played-out on her lips—brings us (almost) too far inside her strange, delicate world of hopelessness. His is the bright performance that throws all the others on stage into a strange twilight.

Part of the first Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis through May 14, 2016 at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Ave., just south of the Fox Theatre.

For more information, visit www.upstreamtheatre.org

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