The Glass Menagerie

PlayMakers Repertory Company
Through Feb. 28

“I believe that in great plays, it’s all there for you,” said Libby Appel, director of The Glass Menagerie, in a discussion with audience members after the PlayMakers premiere, about how she mined the Tennessee Williams text for interpretive cues that, together with revelatory acting, set this production apart. The memory play was Williams’ first stage hit in 1945, and is his most autobiographical work, about how he abandoned his dependent mother and mentally ill sister to become a writer.

But Appel’s new production in rotating rep reveals that the standard reading as a repressive mother-daughter play is not the only, or most compelling, one. Tapping a line in Tom’s opening monologue about memory being set to music, Appel engages a violinist on stage, Trevor Wignall, to add incidental music to the action. The effect is instantly organic, and Wignall’s musical cues become as integral to the proceedings as if they were another cast member.

Another change startling in its subtlety is Appel’s use of two actors to play Williams’ autobiographical narrator, Younger Tom (John Tufts) and Older Tom (Ray Dooley). They elegantly mirror each other on stage, while Older Tom can watch and comment on the scenes in a different emotional register. Again, it’s a move so brilliant it seems obvious, besides being a great excuse to add the note-perfect Dooley to this ensemble cast.

That said, Judith-Marie Bergan owns this production from the moment she appears as Amanda Wingfield, providing a rare glimpse of the mother as a sympathetic figure. Bergan’s Amanda is likeably complicated, a misfired belle turned pragmatist, plotting to ensure her children’s future in a changed atmosphere. She relates memories of her own genteel youth in the misty, distant town of Blue Mountain and peddles serials via ladies’ magazine subscriptionsmuch the same way her son will grow up to peddle screenplays. The present-day Tom clearly relishes in his mother the wily old Southern raconteur, while the younger Tom is still too angry to notice how much they have in common, struggling as he is to free himself from the family unit. The play may be one part exorcism of the narrator’s haunting memories, but Act One also plays, thanks to Bergan’s roomy performance, like a love letter from son to mother.

In Act Two, on the other hand, Laura (Marianne Miller) encounters Jim, an old high school crush, as her Gentleman Caller (John Brummer), who might be Older Tom’s fantasy to assuage a guilty conscience, as well as a form of spiritual reparation for his sister, who in real life ended with a botched lobotomy. Miller’s Laura reads ambiguously at first as cripplingly shy, or perhaps even a bit autistic, but through the elevations and disappointments of Act Two, she recovers a herky-jerky sort of poise. There is real magic in her dance scene with Jim, set to “Moonglow” in Michael Matthews’ sound design, evoking William Holden and Kim Novak’s iconic dance in the movie Picnic.

While this production is, for the most part, lovingly attentive to period detail, from the seams on Laura’s stockings to the way Tom carries a folded cap in his back pocket, it is imaginative enough in its interpretive reach to let the play breathe, unlocking its full dimensions like the prisms in one of Laura’s treasured glass animals. Rather than playing a pitiful spinster, beaten down by a domineering mother, Miller’s Laura hints at resilience, and Bergan’s Amanda is protective in the end, despite her parenting foibles.

“There is such a high price for negligence these days,” concludes Amanda, a line that quivers along the fault lines of our current crises, much as the play might have resonated with the global anxieties of audiences at a time of world war. The desperation of three odd characters trapped in the same family, more alike than they care to admit, yet none of them particularly suited to a changing world, touches home in lots of ways. Like Tom, all of us are scarred, doomed to carry baggage from that faraway land Williams calls the past.

Love, like the gentleman caller, breaks our isolation and brings us into the species, changing us from unicorns to normal horses, in the best sense, able to fit in with the herd. Appel and this splendid cast achieve a feat that is nearly as remarkable: turning a warhorse of the American theater into a theatrical experience as fragile and exquisite as Laura’s unicorn.