'Menagerie' returns to Williams' 'device'

January 21, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Although the published, reading version of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" is the one the playwright favored, most theatergoers are familiar with the more pedestrian and realistic acting version. Most theatergoers outside of Baltimore, that is.

It was here a decade ago that director John Dexter staged the pre-Broadway run of what was probably the first major production to employ the projected titles Williams called his "screen device."

Now Baltimoreans have a second chance to evaluate the effectiveness of this device in director Brian Klaas' production at AXIS Theatre. Indeed, the use of this device largely explains why this young company -- which has already established a reputation for being on the cutting edge -- was interested in reviving an American classic.

Nor are Klaas and designers Joel Shepherd (sets) and Burke Wilmore (lighting) content to merely use the titles Williams selected for his largely autobiographical play. Instead, AXIS carries the device a step further, projecting photographs as well as words on the curtained walls of the set.

It's a special effect that takes its cue from the opening speech in which Williams' alter ego, Tom, says: "The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic."

And, interestingly, the addition of images to the projected text enhances the ethereal, dreamlike aura of the script. The result is a physical production that is in many ways lovelier and less overt than its Broadway predecessor. (With all due respect to Williams' innovation, a photo of a blue rose is far more evocative than, for instance, the projection of the melodramatic word: "Terror!")

The production's ethereal quality is also reflected in Jacqueline Underwood's portrayal of Tom's sister, Laura. Although Underwood downplays Laura's physical handicap, she moves with the tentative, awkward, fragile gestures of a wounded bird. The effect echoes the opinion of her gentleman caller -- played by Trevor Michaels with a combination of blustery confidence and kindness -- who insists her real disability is internal.

As Tom, Jack Manion bristles with an ill-at-ease urgency to leave his suffocating home and mother. At the same time, he is pained to the point of anger at the knowledge of the desolate future to which Laura will be consigned by his departure. This angry tone colors his delivery of the concluding words, "Blow out your candles, Laura." It's a line often spoken in wistful resignation, but Manion's heated delivery is as much a comment on his own despair as on his sister's fate.

In view of such subtly shaded characterizations, it is particularly disappointing that Lynne R. Sigler portrays Tom and Laura's mother, Amanda, as a one-note harridan. This choice is exacerbated by the addition of physical violence; Amanda not only rails at her children, she pushes, shoves and grabs them.

Nonetheless, in most respects -- and especially visually -- AXIS has mounted a production that, by returning to and expanding on Williams' 50-year-old attempt to create "a new, plastic theater," has succeeded in making an old play new again.

"The Glass Menagerie"

Where: AXIS Theatre, Meadow Mill, 3600 Clipper Mill Road

When: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m., through Feb. 13

Tickets: $10 and $12

Call: (410) 243-5237

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