Live Theatre

There’s a special challenge behind staging a “memory play” like Tennessee Williams’s Glass Menagerie. If you play up too much the memory side (that is, make it obvious that the stage events are Tom’s regretful recollections being acted out like a private psychodrama), you get at best a deeply moving illustrated lecture, interesting only if we care why Tom is telling us all this. Minimize Tom’s narration by playing the action entirely in the present, and you emphasize what doesn’t happen (Laura wins no love from her Gentleman Caller, Jim O’Connor) rather than what does: Tom’s (and Tennessee’s) remorse over the sister he left behind.

Certainly Tom failed to provide — could anyone have succeeded? — a permanent gentleman caller to destroy Laura’s loneliness, a white knight to rescue the crippled girl (in reality, Tennessee Williams’s ultimately lobotomized sister) from a mother who ferociously tries to relive and re-form her own life through her frightened daughter. But, apart from the fact that Tom makes up much that he couldn’t have known, this is Laura’s story, too, and Amanda’s, the mother’s. If Tom is allowed to officiously stage-manage his own admittedly illusory memories, the resulting intrusiveness can blunt this play’s wonderful complexity.

Perhaps because A.C. Thomas’s in-the-round Live Theatre staging dispenses with all but the essential props (Tom’s typewriter, Laura’s glass animals, her phonograph, Amanda’s phone, and a stylized sofa), this Glass Menagerie strongly underscores Tom’s random recollections. Scenes begin abruptly, like flashbacks to lost opportunities suddenly recalled. Mute moments when–Laura embraces her fragile friends punctuate the scenes, and in the midst of action the actors appear lost in reverie, as if frozen in some sudden recollection. Julie Martino’s lighting looks as tight and precise as a suddenly isolated mental picture. Much here feels as if it’s happened many times before.

But you pay a price for putting the dream before the reality. The Live Theatre acting tends toward a vaporous preciousness. The glacial pacing can be maddening, like a memory stuck in its groove. Worse, Thomas loses much of the humor that offsets the sentiment, particularly Amanda’s penchant for self-parody (as in her wheedling, revealing first-act telephone solicitations). With her threadbare airs and graces, this cracked Southern belle has convinced herself that lightning (17 of her own gentlemen callers in one afternoon) could still strike twice. Laura’s proposed boyfriend will have to woo the mother before he can ever win the daughter.

Dragging out Amanda’s self-righteous self-pity, Diane Ponte-Wright plays her so introspectively that this supposedly extroverted, life-sucking matriarch comes off as harmless, even enervated. Here’s a mother who’s so sure her son will become a version of his father — a drunken bum who’ll desert them all — that, perversely, she forces history to repeat itself. At the same time she’s living her glory days so vicariously through Laura that the girl hasn’t a chance for a life of her own, let alone love in her own right. In its subtextual depths, Glass Menagerie fairly seethes with Tom’s unprocessed, retroactive anger. Slow down these scenes, treat Amanda like a grown-up Blanche DuBois, and they turn maudlin on you.

To show us that these are Tom’s memories we’re glimpsing, director Thomas has Matthew Schaefer enter the scenes far more often than necessary (particularly during the all-important Laura-Jim heart-to-heart). Still, Schaefer gives a clear and concentrated performanceas the adventure-starved narrator. He’s hilarious as he freaks out Amanda with imaginary tales of his gangster activities, and he’s the only actor who tries to connect with the others onstage. Denise Petersen is, well, a bit too beautiful to be Laura (unless she’s secretly an ax murderer, this Laura should be besieged with gentlemen callers). Petersen is also too self-effacing even for this part: Laura, after all, has to have some emotional weight for us to want her to have a whole lot more. Part of Petersen’s problem is that Gary Albert’s disastrous Gentleman Caller gives her nothing to work with. Flatly reciting his wonderful lines, so we’re convinced someone’s holding an invisible gun to his head, Albert emotionally eviscerates the candlelit confessional scene that’s Glass Menagerie’s glorious payoff. Dramatically speaking, this Jim is even more “in love with long distance” than Tom’s father.

So, without a fully developed Amanda, a Laura to hold her own dramatically, or a plausible Gentleman Caller, this Glass Menagerie is wounded in several vital organs.