The Glass Menagerie

Cheltenham Center for the Arts, 439 Ashbourne Rd., Cheltenham, through Nov. 24 (379-4027).

For all this High Concept stuff, there is still a very realistic human story being played out, though it is as muted as the flickering candlelight.
"The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.''"

That's how the narrator Tom Wingfield (William Zielinski) introduces Tennessee's autobiographical memory play, The Glass Menagerie.

Ken Marini's production of the play at Cheltenham certainly is dimly lit (by Wes Hacking), even before the electricity fails and the stage is illuminated only by candlelight for much of the second act.

And, in keeping with Zielinski's knowing pause ("it is not...realistic"), the physical production at Cheltenham, designed by David P. Gordon, is strikingly unrealistic. The stage floor is broken into jagged levels that jut out into the auditorium. The walls, as well as the ceiling and a large panel of the floor, are angled panes of glass, smashed into a spiderweb of cracks, fracturing the sides of the stage into a mirroring funhouse maze. Tom narrates, and observes much of the action of the play, from a movie theater seat to the side of the stage. And on a screen (following the playwright's oft-ignored stage direction) are projected titles for each scene.

But for all this High Concept stuff, there is still, at the center of the stage and the center of the play, a very realistic human story being played out, though, at Cheltenham, it is as muted as the flickering candlelight.

As Tom, Zielinski simmers but rarely boils over, assuming a cool writerly distance (and a Williams-like relish for verbal imagery) from the hearts breaking around him.

Jim, the "gentleman caller" lured into the shabby apartment in pre-World War II St. Louis as a potential husband for Tom's physically and emotionally crippled sister Laura, is played by John Lumia with a muted naturalness that makes him almost disappear into the shadows. There's little trace left of the high school debater and operetta star of old; and Jim's night-school assertiveness training courses seem to have served to make him more a good listener than a potential captain of industry.

Lumia's polite simplicity sets off Heather Stuart's Laura, so paralyzed with terror that we want to cheer when she finally accepts Jim's offer of a stick of chewing gum. She almost seems to be apologizing to Jim after he accidentally breaks her favorite glass figurine. Her heartbreak, deeply felt, barely ripples the surface; this Laura does most of her suffering in quivering silence.

At the center of the play is Amanda Wingfield, Tom and Laura's mother, and one of the grandest and most grotesque creations in modern American drama. To her credit, Sally Mercer brings this character down to earth with the others. She is appropriately suffocating, castrating and crippling. But, even in her elaborate paeans to jonquils, gracious living and gentleman callers, her feet are still firmly planted in this world. When she appears for dinner dressed in a 30-year-old party dress, she's not a gargoyle-like monstrosity but merely wistful, a faded flower pressed between the pages of a book.

As Mercer plays her, Amanda is neither a grande dame nor a monster. Like all of the others, she is a manufacturer of illusions. And as such, she is the only one who beats Tom, and Tennessee Williams, at their own game.

-- Cary M. Mazer