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Family Ties

An American classic is brought hauntingly to life

Karl Kippola tries to leave Christine Demuth behind.

By Andrea Appleton | Posted 2/24/2010

The Glass Menagerie

By Tennessee Williams

At Rep Stage through Mar. 14

Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie is exquisitely crafted. The semi-autobiographical play about a mother and her grown children is dense with symbolism, with the smallest elements--a glass unicorn figurine, a strain of violin music, a casual remark--seeming to add to the sense of the whole. The play portrays what those lacking in poetry might call a dysfunctional family, but it is also a meditation on memory, loss, and regret. Even the stage directions are portentous. In one scene, for instance, an actor is to shake "a little toy noise-maker or rattle as if to express the tiny spasm of man in contrast to the sustained power and dignity of the Almighty."

In short, The Glass Menagerie is a difficult play to pull off. Fortunately for Rep Stage, director Michael Stebbins hews closely to Williams' meticulous instructions without sacrificing any of the play's mystery. The resulting production has the resonance of a complex and troubling dream.

The play opens on Tom (Karl Kippola) in front of a translucent screen through which a room is just visible, like a dim recollection. Tom is a man remembering what it was like, once, to live with his battle-ax mother Amanda (Tamara Johnson) and his disabled, painfully shy sister Laura (Christine Demuth). "Being a memory play," he says, "it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic." The screen rises and Tom is once more an aspiring writer working a soul-crushing job at a shoe warehouse. His father ran off long ago and his mother ricochets between nostalgic memories of her genteel Southern past and hysterical worry about the future. Laura, for her part, lives in a fantasy world where a collection of fragile glass animals is her deepest solace. The climax of the play comes when Tom's friend Jim (Brandon McCoy) arrives. Tom's mother regards this "gentleman caller" as Laura's last hope for a happy future.

Kippola is a bit old to play Tom, but it scarcely matters. As narrator, he's detached, a man of the world. But as the browbeaten son of yore, he takes on the pained look of Jimmy Corrigan, Chris Ware's ever-hopeful, always disappointed comic book schlemiel. Through the course of the play, one can see the suppressed rage rising within him like poisonous gas. Johnson's Amanda is the perfect contrast. Her fantasy of herself as a Southern belle is what sustains her, and Johnson plays that up. Her accent is full of voluptuous diphthongs, her every movement a sashay. Yet Johnson somehow makes the domineering old gal sympathetic. When she hears any small shred of good news, her face takes on a dimpled innocent joy that cuts at you.

As Laura, Demuth's slow movements and dreamy eyes make her seem like a porcelain doll, or one of her precious glass figurines. Even when she awakens in the presence of Jim, Demuth plays it with subtlety: Her eyes widen, her chest quickly rises and falls. As for Jim, he is all-American, gum-chewing, back-slapping. But McCoy brings unusual nuance to the role. He is politely attentive to the self-conscious Laura, but then part of him seems to fall for her. When they dance, it is slow and intimate and when he leaves, he pauses outside the door with what looks like regret.

The set is appropriate, with occasional inspired touches. For instance, a photo of the lost husband and father hangs on the wall and glows when referred to. (A humorous touch: While Amanda often waxes rhapsodic about her husband's charm and good looks, the goofy guy in the photo looks about as debonair as Barney Fife.) Stebbins also includes something from Williams' original script that most productions omit: photo projections. Throughout the play, black-and-white images meant to complement the plot appear on the living room wall: roses, a girl's face, a coffin. While mostly unobtrusive, the projections are a weird element that add nothing to the production.

Yet most everything else--including the lighting and sound--comes off well. Shadows from the fire escape fall like prison bars on Tom as he reluctantly returns home at night and, by day, the dreamy rectangles of a windowpane checker the living room that Laura scarcely leaves. Simple piano and violin melodies come and go, lending the production a pensive air. This, too, is as Tennessee Williams wanted. He once said: "Snatching the eternal out of the desperately fleeting is the great magic trick of human existence." Under his tutelage, the cast and crew at Rep Stage have pulled a rabbit out of a hat. This is a production that haunts.

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