The Glass Menagerie
Through June 26
Raleigh Little Theatre, Raleigh

They’re conventions of theater criticism: no spoilers, and please, don’t give away the end. But my hand is forced when it comes to Raleigh Little Theatre’s production of The Glass Menagerie, since the conclusions artistic director Patrick Torres reaches are the most noteworthy element of the endeavor by far. Besides, given the canonical status of Tennessee Williams’s memory play in American literature classes—and its myriad productions in film and television and on the local stage—for most of us, the element of surprise left this particular text long ago.

Still, fair warning: Spoilers lie ahead.

Regional productions before this one—at Theatre Raleigh, PlayMakers Repertory Company, and Triad Stage, for starters—have rightly resisted the schmaltz that figured into so many stagings of The Glass Menagerie in the 1970s and ’80s. Despite the overt claim that the work is sentimental in narrator Tom Wingfield’s opening monologue (voiced here, perhaps with a bit too much charm, by Jesse Gephart), Williams’s script quickly contradicts this. There’s no nostalgia in his acidic social analysis of a complacent American middle class falling victim to “a dissolving economy” while blindly queuing up for the next world war—or in the snarky subtitles Williams had projected onstage between the scenes of the original production, which are not present in this one.

And yet, for all of their supposed remorselessness, nearly every area production in the past two decades has folded on its hard-nosed stance in the final scene. Instead, they’ve sheltered emotionally crippled central character Laura (and her audiences) from the inevitable, stark consequences of an arranged first-and-last-date fiasco with Jim, her gentleman caller (Ryan Ladue), and the stubborn personal and family choices that have led to that psychological cul de sac.

That doesn’t happen here. Instead of sending her demurely into that good night, Torres directs young actor Kelly McConkey through a frightening emotional maelstrom in the show’s closing moments, as Laura finally faces her heartbreak, wholly alone. Smothering, hectoring mother Amanda (Mary Rowland) has left the stage, and in her absence, true growth or true catastrophe might occur.

McConkey seems to be awakening to a house on fire as Laura desperately careens past the empty picture frames that line designer Elizabeth Newton’s symbolic set. With no one to comfort, placate, or excuse her, Laura’s shattered, increasingly distraught visage is the last image Tom sees during his too-rushed final apology. Though hers is the face of a soul in hell, it somehow does not leave us without hope.

In an instant, McConkey’s Laura has fully realized, in a way she never has before, the horror of her chosen, isolated condition. Ultimately, it’s the only plausible force that might propel her toward rescuing herself. In Torres’s uncompromising and original view of this American classic, it’s clear that no one else is going to.