Bartlett Theater @ PSI Theatre

120 Morris St., Durham

Through Nov. 15

The moment takes us by surprise at the start of Act 2 in Bartlett Theater‘s production of The Glass Menagerie. Under Jonathan Bohun Brady’s direction, Maigan Kennedy’s Laura stands stock still, arms out, as overbearing Southern matriarch Amanda (Shannon Malone) dresses her to snare a suitor coming to dinner that night. But Laura’s pose seems oddly lifeless, stuck somewhere between a somnambulist, a zombie and a person about to be crucified.

So we can’t exactly accuse Brady of sentimentalism in his interpretation of the Tennessee Williams classic, the semi-autobiographical account of a young artist struggling to break free of his dysfunctional family, in Bartlett Theater’s inaugural run. Not when faced with Kennedy’s strikingly abashed mannerisms and body language, and certainly not when our narrator, Laura’s brother Tom (Adam Poole), recounts this memory play so evasively at its start and finish.

Even the gentleman caller, Jim (Chris Wright), the putative savior, winds up as a fairly pompous twit who’s taken Dale Carnegie’s win-friends-and-influence-people thing a bit too seriously. Still, the sum of these unexpected choices is preferable to soapier takes that keep these characters eternally inert in the gauzy precincts of memory.

Charles Murdock Lucas’ set, with minimal furnishings placed on a shocking rectangular plane of white rock salt, echoes both the broken glass motif in Triad Stage’s astounding 2010 production and the field of ice in PlayMakers Rep’s rewarding 2000 run. Stevan Dupor’s lighting cues are sudden, not seductive. This starkness reminds us to keep our wits about us.

We long for Tom to find some reconciliation with his memories and with the family he abandoned to pursue his own freedom. But Poole’s manner and relatively curt delivery suggest a man who always keeps his emotions at arm’s lengthand who remains as unforgiven and on the run at the end of the play as he was at the beginning. It’s one of the colder readings I’ve ever encountered of this classic, and enough to recommend it even for those already familiar with the work.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Fire and ice”