Review | The Glass Menagerie: the play dazzles if, at times, a bit dully

The Guthrie, through Oct 27

Grayson DeJesus and Carey Cox in THE GLASS MENAGERIE. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

For the fifth time, the Guthrie has brought The Glass Menagerie to its stage one of Tennessee Williams most popular and oft-performed plays. Director Joseph Haj has helmed this latest production. With a small cast and simple set, the strength of Williams’ semi-autobiographical play lies in its characters and the timelessness of the story, one that centers on family, love, the limits of guilt, and the weary weight of our pasts.

The play begins with Tom Wingfield, played by Remy Auberjonois, reminiscing about his long and storied past, one that he can’t escape. He tells us that he is not a magician. His illusions are meant to disguise the truth rather than make you believe in the in impossible. Everything that plays out after Wingfield’s opening monologue is a memory, narrated by an unreliable source.

Through Tom, we meet a small family struggling to get by in 1930s America. Tom and his sister Laura, played by Carey Cox, are ever in the shadow of their mother, played by Jennifer Van Dyck. The Glass Menagerie is about family dynamics, and Van Dyck and Auberjonois play off each other brilliantly. The mounting tensions between the two as the dynamic between overbearing mother and dutiful son start to shift are palpable. By the end, we see a desperate woman watching as her resentful son leaves for good. Smack dab in the middle of these two heavyweights is Laura. Painfully shy to a fault, so much so that Laura gets sick during her first day of classes at business college and drops out immediately.

Laura is everything her mother isn’t. Laura’s mother could outtalk an auctioneer. She’s a debutante, past her prime but with a solid footing in the present. For her part, Laura seems away, in dreamland.

The title of the play comes from the collection of small glass animals that Laura cares for obsessively. She polishes them, holds them up to the light to watch them sparkle. Set designer Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams, along with lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, and composer Jack Herrick must be commended for the way they bring Laura’s twinkling fantasy world to life. Over the plain living room set are hung small glass ornaments that light up and move to highlight key moments in the play. With musical cues from Herrick’s beautiful score, the interplay of light, glass, and music is entrancing.

Enter Jim O’Connor, played by Grayson DeJesus, the gentleman caller that Jim brings home as a hopeful suitor for Laura. The gentleman caller whips the Wingfield home into a frenzy. Preparations must be made, the good silver polished and set out, new upholstery must be furnished, and Laura will, of course, need a new dress.

The moments between Jim O’Connor and Laura are truly magical. O’Connor manages to draw Laura out of her shy cocoon. What ensues is the beginning of a beautiful love story. But sadly, this story doesn’t end with a happily ever after.

The Guthrie’s latest Menagerie is admirable for its impressive lighting and set design. The actors hold their own against Williams’ powerful prose, but as overperformed as this play is, it needs more than just a little magic to make it truly innovative. This rendition is as dazzling as Laura’s box of glass ornaments, but a few pieces could use some polishing.

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