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The Real Glass Menagerie

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It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen The Glass Menagerie—yes, there have been some wonderful versions—the current import from Long Wharf Theater is likely to make you feel you’ve finally experienced the piece as it was conceived. (If you’ve never seen it, this is the occasion to catch up with a perfectly played classic). Gone is the layer of frosted glass through which we’ve peered before; gone the hallowed clichés of Southern delicacy and debilitation. These characters are beautifully, wrenchingly, painfully real. There isn’t a gesture too many, an expression without foundation, a moment attention wanders.

Alone in a threadbare New Orleans hotel room, we watch Tom Wingfield (Patch Darragh, above) in complete silence, as he settles his whiskey bottle, sets his scene (even the victrola music must be appropriate), and clearly has an internal dialogue. Bitter, exhausted and out of dreams, he faces the truth of his past and present with clarity, compassion, the determination of a final shot, and the ragged skill of an untutored author. Tom writes (types) and reads throughout the story as well as participating in its dramatization. He never loses us. Ever.

The brave directorial choice of fully minutes without the sound of a voice is realized by an actor whose complete focus draws us immediately in. Transition of Tom’s family from words into physical presence is seamlessly achieved by what appears the simplest, yet absolutely most effective use of a scrim and lighting. Set Designer Michael Yeargan and Lighting Designer Jennifer Tipton have enabled the actors to almost literally fade in and out. The cheap hotel room morphs into Tom’s former home, a tenement in Louisiana, and back. Less is definitely more.

A pitch perfect accent so rich one could almost call it luxurious precedes the entrance of Tom’s mother, Amanda Wingfield (Judith Ivy). Had I not been privileged to witness Ivy’s excellence in any number of roles, I might suggest this was the one she was born to play. Hell, I think it might be. Her Amanda is too much, yet never slips past genuine humanity into being a cartoon. She’s unbearably heavy handed, possessive, hurtful and controlling in the name of mother love. Her protectiveness has become indomitable. Wrapping herself (against cold reality) in endless self-glorifying memories, she has no sense of how “out there” she might seem to others. It’s a portrayal without gloss; we all want to throttle her. The few moments of tenderness that pass between mother and son are all the more precious for this.

Much of Amanda’s caressing indictments are aimed at her daughter, Laura (Keira Keely, with Ivy, above), in whom she’s irrevocably disappointed and for whom she scared out of her wits. What man is there to take care of her congenitally shy, childishly fanciful, close-mouthed and crippled child?! It falls to Tom, who’s wasted years ricocheting between the shoe factory, a movie theater and the local honkey-tonk in his family’s service, to bring someone home who might be cajoled into accepting his beloved, handicapped sister. Wingfield Senior, who worked for the telephone company, fell in love with long distances and disappeared (read: fled) some sixteen years ago. Tom agonizingly plans his own escape to the life of a merchant marine followed hopefully, by literary success. He’s paid his first union dues with money for the electric bill. Watching the lights go out is piercing.

The “gentleman caller” Tom invites turns out to be the one man of whom Laura has ever been enamored. Jim O’Connor (Michael Mosley, with Keely, above) is the kind of person who would’ve signed up for the entire Dale Carnegie course load. He’s gregarious, confident, clean-cut, well spoken (lessons) and hell-bent on improving himself and his lot in life. Amanda goes overboard to impress him. Laura gets predictably “sick” and withdraws. Still, the prospective couple find themselves together in one of the most touching, while simply written scenes in theater. It’s also, at The Laura Pels, one of the most beautifully lit dialogues you’ll ever see. The candlelight is absolutely magical.

Judith Ivy, as previously noted, is flat out glorious; indelible. Patch Darragh is at one with his finely tuned instrument. He moves like a dancer-never out of character, but with a fluidness that makes every detail cohesive. He’s a superb, character specific drunk. Raging internal conflict is palpable. His affection for Laura heart breaking. There’s a softness to his accent, which works wonderfully in direct contrast to Ivy’s perpetual, penetrating drone.

Kiera Keeley has the awkward, hunted look of a young animal. She creates the Laura Tennessee Williams wrote: as fragile as her glass collection, but rescues an often wispy role by adding a solidity to her pathos. Laura knows her future.

Michael Mosley brings robust life to an uncomplicated, though not insensitive man. His bravado might, under other circumstances, be exhibited by the young thespian who bounds on stage asking “anyone for tennis?” The trick (mastered here) is sustaining that kind of genuine, fresh, open character.

Gordon Edelstein’s direction has offered us the treat of humanizing a play often relegated to historical precedence…and of sharing with us the its strength, rather than the dreamy quality pervading other productions. This is not to call it unpoetic. His deft sensibility recognizes particular body language, eloquent timing, and the force of stillness. Edelstein uses the stage like a canvas.

The Glass Menagerie has been extended through June 13. Do not miss it.

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Gordon Edelstein
Presented by the Roundabout Theater Company
In association with Long Wharf Theater
The Laura Pels Theater
111 West 46 Street
212-719-1300
Running Time-2 hours 30 minutes

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