Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Gamm Theatre: "The Glass Menagerie"

My review of Tennessee Williams's breakthrough family drama, The Glass Menagerie (at the Gamm Theatre through April 4), is in this week's Motif (available in caf├ęs around town and as a downloadable PDF at http://motifmagazine.net). Critical sentiment around this show is pretty much uniform: it's terrific (here, here, here, and here).

Amanda Wingfield, played by Wendy Overly at her most solicitous, flutters and fusses around the stage, forcing on her children the regurgitated detritus of her unmetabolized past. But they see her stories for what they are: pablum. Laura, crippled and shy, retreats from her mother's exhortations into a world of make-believe. Tom, the sympathetic center of the show, is graced with more resource: he turns his visions of escape into reality and joins the Merchant Marines. Of course, running away and breaking free are different things, and it is clear from the play - which is narrated by a much older Tom, who is played with well-lubricated charm by Sam Babbitt - that, as far as Tom has traveled, he has not managed to rid himself of his past. The play is a gesture of reconciliation for him (and, we imagine, for Williams himself): with his sister, his mother, and his younger, more impulsive, self.

Laura is played by Diana Biurski, who has proved her talent on the local stage in her performances with the Brown/Trinity Consortium and with the Gamm. With her wide eyes and long limbs, she is naturally expressive. She comes into her own in this play in the second act, when Laura enjoys the attention and encouragement of Jim O'Connor (the compelling and charismatic Kelby T. Akin), a go-getter whom Tom has brought home from his work at the shoe warehouse to satisfy his mother's dreams of gentleman callers for her lonely daughter. During this extended scene, which ripens and swells with feeling, Laura's eyes glow with admiration, and her body shakes with anxiety and anticipation. It is a long moment of suspense: like Laura, our bodies bend - achingly, warily, perilously - towards the suggestion of a fuller future. As Jim urges Laura to step beyond her perceived limits, so does Williams demand the audience do the same; he enlists our empathy in a wonderful and foolhardy enterprise. Biurski makes this a risk worth taking.

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