Hooray for the Classic Theatre San Antonio’s inaugural production: a delicate, thoughtful rendering of Tennessee Williams’ earliest masterpiece, The Glass Menagerie. As an artist, Williams was all for truth-in-advertising. The play’s narrator announces, with a certain melancholy, that Menagerie is “a memory play,” and so it is. (As in most of Williams’ works, such memories include, of course, repressed sexuality, fading Southern gentility, and plenty of hooch.)
From this bravura meta-theatrical opening, the play eases into its deceptively simple plot: a frustrated warehouse employee, Tom, shares a cramped St. Louis apartment with his bitter belle of a mother, Amanda, and his slightly crippled, painfully withdrawn sister Rose. When Tom invites Jim, a warehouse buddy, over for dinner, he inadvertently summons Disillusion as well, for Jim is nothing if not antidotal to the Wingfields’ impossibly naive evaluation of their social circumstances. Brimming with optimism — and his faith in the power of New(-fangled) Media — Jim seems, at first, a breath of fresh air, the embodiment of American ambition and tenacity. But though Jim may have the logic of American Progress on his side, he is trapped — like all of us, I suppose — in a memory play; and in a Williams play, memory follows no logic but its own.
Casting choices are strong. Tony Ciaravino commands the stage as the sexy, smarmy Jim, whose introduction to Rose culminates in perhaps the saddest seduction in American letters. (The patron next to me actually started sniffling. Pollen or heartbreak? You be the judge.) Though oddly feisty in the first act, Eva Laporte’s Laura ends up a true Williams heroine: She’s impossibly, even pathologically, attracted to beauty at the expense of personal happiness. Thus Rose’s infatuation with her glass menagerie — her collection of crystal animals — sets up the play’s larger thematic concerns, of an escape to a utopian world in which unicorns exist, and family doesn’t.
As the dysfunctional dyad of Tom and Amanda, Andrew Thornton and Terri Peña Ross execute their emotional blackmail with flair. It’s obvious that mother and son have locked talons in a death spiral. Ross, however, tends to play Amanda as shrewish rather than profoundly lost, and I think this robs the piece of some power. As a character, Amanda’s not unlike Streetcar’s Blanche DuBois, who remains sympathetic because (and not in spite) of her delusions. We need to see why Tom still cares for his mother, even as Amanda’s chipper exhortations of “Rise and Shine!” could strip the paint from the walls.
Interpretively, this production unfurls like a hemi-semi-memory play, with some striking if occasionally inconsistent choices by director Allan Ross. Dinner, for instance, is an entirely mimed affair, featuring very real tensions over imaginary victuals. Ditto for the entryway that ushers in so much pain: The plot literally pivots on this door’s make-believe hinges. But Ross’s lovely set is otherwise realistic, even detailed; and Jim’s chewing gum is not only real, but offered to Laura like the loaves of Christ. Rick Malone’s soundscape — with its jewel-box melodies — swells at particularly dreamy moments; and it’s an exceptionally nice touch that Jim, the incarnation of The Real, can never hear, much less absorb, such fairytale music. When these oneiric moments click, the production dances between the decades with the grace and pathos of a sad, halting waltz.
I’d no idea that Say Sí in Southtown had a black-box space, but it’s been reasonably converted into a working theater, with a shallow three-quarter stage and an effective lighting grid by William Stewart. The space’s proximity to the noisy railroad tracks, however, is a problem. Are we in a memory play or a caboose?
In any other city, I’d worry that Glass Menagerie is a bit overdone — but in San Antonio, no such fears. (This is only the third production of any Williams play that I can recall in eight years; I believe, however, we’ve witnessed every possible transmogrification of Nunsense.) So the Classic Theatre’s goal of presenting the perennials of world theater fills an important cultural need; next up are Shakespeare and Strindberg, and we couldn’t be happier. In the meantime, the Classic Theatre delivers a well-crafted journey down Williams’ memory lane, where errant fathers trip the light fantastic — and even unicorns learn to cry. •
The Glass Menagerie
Through Oct 18
1518 S. Alamo