Director warms up 'Glass Menagerie' Review: With a sympathetic mother, a romantic Gentleman Caller and (gasp!) touches of humor, Tim Vasen brings a different interpretation to the Tennessee Williams classic.

March 21, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" is narrated by the playwright's alter ego, Tom, and revolves around the character of Laura, but the play really belongs to their mother. And in Center Stage's current production, Pamela Payton-Wright's portrayal of her sparkles even brighter than the glistening glass animals in Laura's menagerie.

Payton-Wright makes Amanda Wingfield remarkably sympathetic. She's not the martyr or harridan as she is so often portrayed. Relatively young and still full of life, this is a woman driven by maternal love. Although she may go about it relentlessly, she wants the best for her children. And, like the increasing number of single, working mothers since Williams wrote "The Glass Menagerie" in 1944, she is doing the very best she can.

This interpretation, so much warmer than is typical, is one of many chances director Tim Vasen has taken. Not all of these chances succeed this splendidly, but those that do bring freshness to a play that can too easily rest on its musty laurels as a modern classic.

Another, perhaps bigger, chance that succeeds surprisingly well Laura's reaction to the event at the core of the action -- the visit by the Gentleman Caller.

As Laura, Katie MacNichol does both less and more with the role than most actresses. She downplays Laura's limp until it is genuinely no more than the "little defect" described by other characters. At the same time, she exaggerates Laura's crippling shyness to the point where her histrionics become almost laughable.

And yet, in her scene with the Gentleman Caller, MacNichol conveys the burgeoning of Laura's repressed hopes with such an incandescent spirit that, though the evening turns out to be a bitter disappointment for her mother, it has an uplifting effect.

Jon Brent Curry's portrayal of the Gentleman Caller is largely responsible for transforming this pivotal scene. It becomes a night when Laura truly enjoys herself, a night she will always treasure.

As blond, handsome and winning as Robert Redford in "The Way We Were," Curry brings two highly significant elements to the role. First, as the play's only non-family member, he lets us see how odd the desperate Wingfields are, although he accepts them on their own terms and, in Laura's case, offers understanding as well. That leads to Curry's second and more unconventional take on the role. He is sincerely attracted to Laura; he kisses her out of desire, not pity.

All of this, of course, is filtered through the memory of the play's narrator, Tom. As portrayed by Robert Sean Leonard, Tom's devotion to his sister, Laura, is unmistakable. In a production that contains more humor than most "Menageries," this devotion is especially evident in the light-hearted moments Tom shares with his sister. (The humor, however, is one of director Vasen's bigger risks. Overall it serves as an effective leavening agent, but it also undercuts much of the anger in the major scene in which Tom blows up at his mother.)

Tom's love for his sister is further conveyed by expanding Williams' idea of placing Tom outside certain scenes. Williams' confined this staging to Tom's narration. By carrying it a step further, Vasen underlines the wistfulness in Tom's reminiscences. For instance, when Tom says grace at dinner with the Gentleman Caller, instead of sitting at the table, Leonard stands off to the side, and the grace becomes a blessing for Laura, who sits isolated in the living room.

Like the direction, the physical production -- set by Tony Straiges, lighting by Jeremy Stein, costumes by Tom Broecker -- works most of the time. The strings of glass animals that descend during Laura's first scene with her beloved collection are lovely, but in the final scene, when Amanda yells at Tom: "Go to the moon -- you selfish dreamer!" the giant moon projected on the back wall is overkill.

"The Glass Menagerie" is the play that made the young Tennessee Williams famous. A half century later, it is impossible to view this largely autobiographical work without being aware of Williams' subsequent history -- that he did, in fact, become the success Amanda wished for Tom, but that he also took to drink, as she so greatly feared.

Center Stage's production, however, encompasses much more than the playwright's memories or history. In daring to bring new ideas to an old chestnut, director Vasen, and particularly Payton-Wright, have forged a "Glass Menagerie" that will resonate with anyone who has ever yearned for a better life for a loved one.

'Glass Menagerie'

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 7: 30 p.m. most Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and most Sundays, and 1 p.m. March 26 and April 23; through April 27

Tickets: $24-$29

Call: (410) 481-6500

Pub Date: 3/21/97

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