When writers first start out, they rarely think beyond themselves, cranking out insular, navel-gazing works about their own lives and concerns. Only when they get this out of their systems and begin to wrestle with the greater world around them do they find success.
A playwright named Tom Williams did it backward. Struggling in obscurity through his 20s, he didn't really get around to writing about himself until the age of 33. It was then that he penned what he called a "memory play," a recollection of his early adulthood when he shared a run-down apartment in St. Louis with his domineering mother and mentally disturbed sister. In so doing, he created something universal.
Oh, yeah. And he changed his name to Tennessee.
The play, of course, is The Glass Menagerie, the classic 1944 drama that opened last Thursday at TheatreWorks.
In the hands of Anna Brenner, a New York City director making her Theatreworks debut, the play takes on a quiet, delicate tone, in which each of the three main characters seems as fragile as the tiny glass figures the daughter collects. These people may have been broken by the world outside, but it is toward each other that they turn their jagged edges.
Williams fictionalizes himself as the Tom Wingfield, the narrator of the play.
"I am the opposite of a stage magician," he tells us as he stands before the curtain at the beginning of the play. "He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion."
And then a kind of magic does happen. The tall, self-assured man steps through the curtains and instantly becomes a different person, an angry, stooped and much younger man who longs to be a poet but is stuck in a soul-deadening job at a warehouse. As escape, he runs off to the movies or for a quick smoke on the fire escape. It's never enough, though, for as soon as he returns home, his mother Amanda is there to ask him where's he been; she's worried that he'll run off like his father did years before. There is a world of complexities in Tom, but Ryan Reilly (another NYC import) juggles them all expertly.
Amanda is often portrayed as a shrew, but local favorite Jane Fromme plays her softer. Maybe too soft. Her Amanda is a lovable scatterbrain who truly cares for her children but is so concerned for their futures that she forgets to appreciate them in the present. After learning that the terminally shy Laura dropped out of business school, Amanda decidees that her only hope for financial stability is to marry Laura off. At first Tom rebels, but it's not long before he brings home a co-worker named Jim to meet her.
Melissa D. Brown, also from New York, plays Laura. Brown is a finely nuanced actress, and with her wide, expressive eyes, she definitely looked the part. But in her scenes with Jim (an instantly likable Philip Guerette), I never really bought her as the wallflower she's supposed to be. Her presence is too strong, her voice too commanding.
The set, designed by Julia Przedmojska, contributes to the dreamlike quality of the story. There are few details cluttering up the rooms, and the whole thing rests on open joists to remind us that we are, after all, watching a play. But the actors seemed to be swallowed up by the large dining room, compromising the intimacy of the play.
Another strong element of the production is Elizabeth Atkinson's dramatic background music. I have to admit it was a little jarring at first to hear a 1950s-style jazz drum riff throbbing under the dialogue at key moments in the play, but it was extremely effective in building tension and setting the audience on edge.
Almost 70 years after it premiered, The Glass Menagerie remains one of the great American plays. This powerful, moving and very human production shows why.
The Glass Menagerie
Through Sept. 30, Wednesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday matinees, 2 p.m.; Sunday matinees 4 p.m. TheatreWorks, Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater, 3955 Regent Circle. Tickets, $15-$35, free for UCCS students. Call TheatreWorks at 255-3232 or visit theatreworkscs.orgfor more.