Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Glass Menagerie, The Cleveland Play House

(From left, Alison Lani as Laura and Linda Purl as Amanda)

One of the major tasks in life is trying to separate appearance from reality, whether we’re analyzing Sarah Palin’s claim that she’s ready for the presidency (yeah, right) or the ever-changing nuances of our own or others’ identities.

That task is multiplied for the director and actors in The Glass Menagerie, since playwright Tennessee Williams crafted a box of mirrors that, in the words of the narrator Tom, is “truth in the disguise of a pleasant illusion.” While many productions of this beloved script tend towards the ethereal, director Michael Bloom has opted for a more direct and socially engaged approach in this Cleveland Play House effort. And the results are quite satisfying but fall short of being truly memorable.

The play takes place in a fusty 1930’s living and dining room, imagined by scenic designer Robert Mark Morgan, with the playing area compressed by towering walls on either side. It seems like the room is the bait inside a giant leg-hold trap, and trapped these characters most certainly are. Matriarch Amanda Wingfield is living with her two grown children, frustrated poet Tom who pays the bills with his warehouse job, and dreamy Laura who is handicapped both by terminal shyness and a bum leg.

Tom wants to bolt from this claustrophobic existence, just like his daddy who split long ago, but he keeps hanging on by spending most evenings at the movies. At least that’s what he tells mom. Meanwhile, Amanda is fully captivated by her memories of being a much sought-after Southern belle, hoping against all odds for the appearance of some “gentlemen callers” for her daughter. And in the second act, Tom offers co-worker Jim O’Connor as a dinner guest, an outgoing fellow who crystallizes the pain for the Winfield threesome (which, not so incidentally, was modeled on the author’s family).

In the role of Amanda, Linda Purl (yes, she once rode with The Fonz) strings together a series of wonderful moments, from deftly delivering clever asides to luxuriating in memories of her former life. And when she lashes out at Tom or Laura for their perceived weaknesses, she reveals a cutting edge that slashes deep. This combination of love and manipulation helps explain why her kids remain caught in a nether world of unreality—Tom with his poetry and films, and Laura with her treasured collection of tiny glass animals.

But as good as she is in individual moments, Purl never fully assembles all the disparate pieces of Amanda’s character. As a result, we obtain a clear picture but not compelling, visceral sense of this woman. Beset by a plethora of character failings, Amanda always stands ready to do whatever she can for her children, even if it’s wrong. And it is that ultimate, wayward nobility that feels a bit pale and distant in Purl’s performance.

As Laura, Alison Lani seems less fragile and more mentally disturbed than we might expect, cowering and limping for cover when a head tilt or a body turn might have sufficed. But Lani helps create a magical scene in the second act when Laura and Jim are left alone. Laura sips from her own memory pool, back when she had a crush on Jim in high school, while trying to relate to the real Jim in the present—and the tension this creates is exquisite.

Daniel Damon Joyce has the difficult task of trying to resolve Tom’s diffident nature, his poetic passion and his dreams of escape. As Tom (the character), Joyce conveys the proper combination of peevishness and restlessness. Unfortunately, in his role as Tom (the narrator), Joyce plays it excessively neutral and ends up with some shallow line readings that echo thinly and do not do justice to Williams’ stellar language.

Sorin Brouwers is energetic and winning as Jim, without falling for the temptation to make this “Prince Charming” too much of a superficial glad-hander.

The Glass Menagerie is a fragile and beautiful play, full of light and shadows. And this Play House production manages to refract many brilliant points of light, even though the aura it creates fades a bit too quickly.

The Glass Menagerie
Through October 5 at
The Cleveland Play House,
8500 Euclid Avenue,

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