Handled With Care

Stray Dog stages a crystal-clear Glass Menagerie

Midway into Act One of the Stray Dog Theatre's mounting of The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams' anguished drama about deception and disappointment, Tom -- whose primary goal in life is to escape the confines of his drab St. Louis existence -- describes a live stage show he attended earlier that evening. As he pulls a rainbow-colored magic scarf from his pocket, he tells his sister Laura about a magician who extricated himself from a coffin without removing a single nail. After Tom succumbs to slumber on a makeshift living-room bed, in a moment of ineffable tenderness Laura waves the scarf over her brother, as if she might extricate him from his coffinlike existence; when that ploy fails, she compensates by gently kissing him on the cheek.

The scarf is in the script. But Laura's attempted legerdemain and her benediction of a kiss are new. These revelatory additions, which are indicative of the acute sensitivity that pervades director Gary F. Bell's production, poignantly remind us that -- despite all the conflicts, confrontations and shouting -- in the innermost chamber of its large heart The Glass Menagerieis a pristine love story between brother and sister. We're also reminded that although family matriarch Amanda Wingfield may have emerged as one of the best-known female characters in American theater, Laura is at the center of the action. It is her wounded fragility that transports audiences into a realm of aching pathos.

As the daughter who is crippled in both body and spirit, Magan Wiles is mesmerizing. There are moments when the hollows of her dark eyes seem to be as deep as mineshafts. In the scene where she stands with lifted arms trying on a new dress, she resembles a beautiful butterfly whose wings have been clipped. Wiles inhabits a glass-animal world so intensely private that the viewer almost becomes a voyeur. It hurts to watch her.

Much of the plot concerns the need to find "a gentleman caller" who might marry Laura. As Jim O'Connor, the "emissary from a world of reality" who appears in Act Two long enough to briefly penetrate Laura's shell, Blaine Smith portrays a Gentleman Caller to whom life also has dealt its own frustrations. In most Glass Menageries, when Laura produces their high school yearbook, Jim is delighted to see it. Here mere mention of the yearbook reminds him of how his post-high school life has stalled.

Hard to believe now that for the first two decades of this play's life, critics deemed the Act Two "gentleman caller" scene the weakest part of The Glass Menagerie. Now we realize that when sensitively enacted, as it is here, the entire play builds to this amazing duologue that succeeds in suspending both time and space.

Back in the 1940s and '50s, all Amandas were measured against the faded elegance of Laurette Taylor, who originated the role. But in the ensuing decades, Amanda has morphed into a kind of Everywoman. She can be as earthy as Maureen Stapleton, as patrician as Katharine Hepburn, as commanding as Joanne Woodward. The most astonishing thing about Diane Peterson's Amanda is that she appears to have seen none of these other actresses. Her Amanda is totally original and authentic.

Apparently Peterson doesn't know that some of her dialogue ("Rise and shine!," "Go to the moon, you selfish dreamer!") is as familiar as the best-known lines from Hamlet. Here we hear it as if for the first time. Nor does the actress adhere to the author's description of Amanda's "foolishness" and "unwitting cruelty." She goes her own way and creates her own character. Her voice may be as scratchy-flat as an overused emery board, but it is often (and surprisingly) the steadying voice of reason. If it is necessary that this former Southern belle subsist on delusions of genteel grandeur in order to override the small defeats that erode her daily existence, then so be it.

Only T. Joseph Reinert as Tom, the play's tortured narrator, fails to find the evening's evocative spell. True, Tom has always been The Glass Menagerie's most thankless role; Toms have to work hardest for the least payoff. But if Reinert would simply talk his lines rather than recite them as speeches, if he would tone down his performance a notch or two (or six), he'd discover that he too is a valued member of the Wingfield family.

 
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