Those who live in glass houses

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By Doug Deuchler

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The Chicago premiere of The Glass Menagerie was a turning point in American theater during the winter of 1944. After a slow, rocky opening, the play finally caught fire, moving on to Broadway where it became the first big hit of a little-known, 33-year-old writer named Tennessee Williams.

This year marks the centenary of Williams' birth, so it is fitting that Oak Park Festival Theatre presents their focused, poignant production of this landmark "memory play." The drama revealed much of Williams' early life and established him as one of the most poetic, sensitive playwrights of the 20th century.

This is the first of Festival's four-show season — their 39th season, in fact.

Sometimes revivals of classics can leave you wondering what all the original fuss was about. Not so with this vivid, well-acted production.

Often this semi-autobiographical play is called a domestic tragedy. But it's not overly dark or depressing. There is a lot of humor, in fact. The new Festival Theatre mounting, particularly energetic, is directed with sensitivity and clarity by Kevin Theis. The characters are all fully realized through solid performances.

Many of us have undoubtedly encountered this work before, having read it in high school or experienced other film or stage versions over the years. But as with any timeless classic, whether it's one of Chopin's Etudes, Picasso's "Guernica," or Warner Bros.' Casablanca, we experience the work on ever deeper levels each time we revisit it. With particularly strong productions like this one, a drama like The Glass Menagerie can linger in one's memory for days. It's like spending quality time with old friends who may puzzle and annoy us but also help us see life and its challenges more clearly.

Williams' characters often live in a world of fragility, barely able to cope, and populating a past that may have never existed. Here we meet four of his most iconic, unforgettable personalities.

Belinda Bremner is remarkably forceful yet haunting as Amanda Wingfield. She's a bossy, badgering but funny and devoted mother of two grown-up children: her restless, would-be writer son and her disabled, painfully shy daughter. Bremner displays a commanding stage presence, communicating a depth of nuance and emotion in a role so complex that, in lesser hands, might become a shrill caricature of a ridiculous, overbearing monster.

Amanda is nagging and needy, and yes, she's foolish and infuriating, but ultimately she is heart-breakingly sympathetic. She doesn't understand her children, yet she loves them so much she spends most of her energy pushing and nearly smothering them. We realize how impossibly trying and infuriating this woman would be to live with, but Amanda touches us with her tenderness, too.

She berates the cowering Laura for dropping out of her business school courses. So, desperately attempting to save her fragile daughter from her potential do-nothing, "old maid's" existence, Amanda convinces Tom to bring some nice young man from the warehouse home for dinner as a potential suitor for his sister.

I have often wondered what Mrs. Edwina Williams, Tennessee's mother, felt as she sat there in the audience on opening night in Chicago in 1944, watching her son's very recognizable semi-autobiographical play unfolding before her.

Amanda, long ago abandoned by her husband, lives with her adult children in a dingy tenement apartment in St. Louis in the Depression-era 1930s. She supplements her son's meager factory wages by selling magazine subscriptions over the telephone to her fellow D.A.R. (Daughters of the American Revolution) members.

Tom, a sensitive, adventure-hungry poet seeking to escape his life of mindless drudgery, has a rebel's edge. A stand-in for young Tennessee Williams, he is both an active participant in the proceedings and at times a mature narrator looking back in time. Christian Gray effectively conveys both Tom's sweet and playful side, as well as his angry intensity, his frustration and bitterness. We see this apple didn't fall far from the tree — Tom gets his dreamy nature from his mother, though his restlessness comes from his long-gone absentee father. Recognizing his youthful dreams are nearly deflated, Tom plots his escape.

Amanda, who chose poorly from among her many beaux, holds onto her patrician southern past as a popular delta debutante, offering theatrical recitations of a long ago afternoon when she was courted by umpteen gentlemen callers. Laura, paralyzed by both nerves and her lame leg, is so pathologically shy she can't seem to get even one.

Zoe Palko is quite convincing as withdrawn Laura, an inhibited, lonely young girl who spends her days focusing on her glass animal collection and playing old Victrola records. Palko's performance brings out Laura's fragility and utter defeat

Jim, the gentleman caller, is everything they're not. He's an Irish-American factory co-worker buddy of Tom's. Luke Couzens is full of good-guy bravado as a former high school hotshot whose life has not turned out as expected. Though optimistic and self-assured, get-ahead guy Jim is somewhat trapped in the past, too.

Coincidentally, he is the same charming young man Laura adored from a distance in high school. Their candlelit scene together is intimate and effective. Jim's energy is so infectious, he coaxes Laura out of her shell. She begins to bloom in his presence, emerging in the flickering candlelight. In this climactic scene, Palko reveals the young woman's untapped humor and warmth.

Michael Lasswell's set virtually fills the intimate performance space. Faded blue floral wallpaper and a sheer curtain that is at times drawn across the dining area are perfect touches. Aimee Hanyzewski's lighting is especially effective, at several points simulating moonlight would shining on the characters. Robert W. Behr is the stage manager.

I enjoy experiencing classics at various life stages. When I was quite young, of course, I identified with the youthful characters in Glass Menagerie and found suffocating Amanda insufferable. Now that I'm probably older than that character, I recognize a pathetic but resilient survivor who, due to stress and disappointment, has retreated too much into her past. Though over-the-top, desperate and disillusioned, Amanda provides a poignant red flag warning for those of us of a certain age who can't seem to move along in life.

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