Theater Review: Nelson Pressley on 'The Glass Menagerie' at Olney Theatre Center
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Tennessee Williams's "The Glass Menagerie" tends to be powered onstage by the character of Amanda, the jittery Southern mother who dreams of her flirty girlhood days while fretting about her own painfully withdrawn grown daughter. The role is a doozy, the first of the many outsize, indomitable characters Williams penned for women, but Olney Theatre Center's shrewd, splendidly balanced production takes its emotional cues from the narrator, Tom (typically seen as a stand-in for Williams himself in this early autobiographical drama).
"I am the narrator of the play, and also a character in it," Tom tells the audience. Michael Kaye plays the part of the aspiring writer remembering a painful family episode more as a character than as a detached observer, and it does the show a world of good. Winding in and out of the shadows of a surprisingly towering apartment building design in Olney's intimate Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, Kaye prowls like a caged tiger, an effect that becomes quite literal when he crouches behind the metal bars of one of the set's many fire escapes.
Kaye's Tom is palpably frustrated with his dreamy, meddling mother, but he is kept in the household by hard times (it's the 1930s) and deep feelings for his sister, who has a bad leg. This muscular portrait of Tom is part of what keeps the ever-fantasizing Amanda tethered to earth in Jim Petosa's clear-eyed staging; the literary dreams Tom suppresses as he toils in a shoe factory are ballast against the dreams Amanda indulges for a "gentleman caller" who might someday appear and sweep Laura away.
Of course, Amanda is also pulled down by the rough gravity of running the household without a husband, a telephone man who fled years ago. (An empty picture frame in the middle of the set drives this absence home.) As Amanda, Paula Langton adroitly melds the family's financial hardship with dreamy reveries of old Southern charm: Whether hawking magazine subscriptions to friends over the phone or over-saturating Laura's eventual gentleman caller with feminine attention, Langton subtly conjures the image of a woman trying to get by.
Langton and Kaye are terrific in their battles together, but the effect on Laura isn't always as corrosive as Williams might have wished. Laura's disfigured leg has led to such a debilitating shyness that she doesn't function well beyond her own imaginary world, and while Briel Banks's performance is fetchingly sweet and still, this Laura is not quite possessed of the same kind of delicacy as the glass animals she treasures.
It's a minor observation; the heart breaks for Laura all the same. Banks compellingly rises and crumples in the presence of the gentleman caller, Jim O'Connor, played with bracing directness by Jeffries Thaiss. The long scene between Laura and Jim is largely illuminated by candlelight, and the coziness inspires several fine, unforced moments between the actors.
The small stage suits the play beautifully, and the evocative gaps in the set by James Kronzer and Jeremy Foil allow the actors to enter and exit this memory play like spooks. Daniel MacLean Wagner's deliberately low lighting creates deep wells of darkness in the elaborate architecture, which Petosa uses to exploit the drama's themes of entrapment and escape. The design and the acting are both pretty much what Williams ordered, with bruising reality colliding hard with Amanda's alluring, relentless poetic sentiment.
The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Jim Petosa. Costumes, Nikki Moody; sound, Matthew Nielson. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through July 5 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. Call 301-924-3400 or visit http:/