Playwright: Tennessee Williams
At: Court Theatre, 5525 S. Ellis
( 773 ) 753-4472, $10-$50
Runs through April 9
BY CATEY SULLIVAN
Never mind the soft-focus moonlight and magnolias. The world of Court Theatre's The Glass Menagerie is a jagged place of stark, sharp angles.
Traditionally, Tennessee Williams's 'memory play' is steeped in the shadows of southern gentility and lit like a silver slipper of a moon. As conceived by Court Artistic Director Charles Newell, it's something else again. The memories of Williams's autobiographical stand in Tom Wingfield are leached of all misty watercolor romance.
Instead of washing over the audience in gentle waves, sorrow comes in fierce, piercing bolts. It's a powerful, jarring and potentially alienating take on the tale of the Wingfield family, and one that's got Newell written all over it. That's not a bad thing: The director has a gift for radically re-imagining well-worn classics. I'm still reeling ( in a good way ) from his breathtaking vision of Man of La Mancha.
Those who prefer their Tennessee soaked in the gentle sweetness of mint juleps best skip this production. Never mind the juleps—this Menagerie scorches like moonshine to the gut.
At its broken heart, The Glass Menagerie tells a simple story. Tom Wingfield ( Jay Whittaker ) is haunted by his sister Laura ( Chaon Cross ) , a physically and emotionally crippled young women he abandoned in a flight of desperate self-preservation. The escape was from Amanda Wingfield ( Mary Beth Fisher ) , a succubus of a woman who, like the stench of decaying jonquils, suffocates all within her reach.
Unable to face her ugly, impoverished present in the decaying home her husband fled years earlier, Amanda lives for a distant ( perhaps imagined ) past filled with wealthy gentleman callers, lace gloves and swirling flirtations.
Laura also lives in lives in her own world, one of fragile glass animals. Like a unicorn that would perish if taken from an enchanted wood, Laura will be forced out into a world of capricious, killing cruelty.
Tom's memories tell the story, and set the stage. Strikingly, Tom recalls the Wingfield home as a cage of eye-hurting yellow that vividly accentuates the pain of his haunted thoughts. Credit John Culbert's bold set design for manifesting Tom's painful remembrances.
If the set is bold, the acting is overbold—the one place that Newell's direction falters a bit. Jay Whittaker is a panther of an actor, both charismatic and menacing, but as Tom, he delves over deep into histrionics. A little more subtlety, a little less my-head-is-about-to-explode frenzy would serve him well. The same goes for Fisher, who is sometimes so manic that humor inappropriately replaces pathos. With Cross, we get a Laura of ethereal beauty that will never be able to cope with the world around her.
Yet despite its flaws, Glass shatters the heart.