The Glass Menagerie is handled with care by Paragon Theatre.

During intermission at The Glass Menagerie, I encountered a very beautiful girl in the ladies' room — dark-haired, pale, slender, someone who might well be cast as the ethereal Laura Wingfield herself someday. She wanted to know if I liked the production. Yes, I said. She did, too, she said, leaning toward the mirror and brushing translucent powder over her cheekbones. She was pleased with the atmosphere, the way the play evoked the 1930s, and she liked the wistful violin music. It reminded her of the records that her father had played to her throughout her childhood.

Nostalgia is at the heart of Tennessee Williams's play, which reveals the stifling and claustrophobic life of a onetime Southern belle and her two grown children, as remembered by son Tom. Amanda once chose a telephone man with a seductive grin over countless other suitors; he "fell in love with long distance" and deserted the family. Now she spends her time alternately succumbing to romantic memories and scheming with tooth-gritted determination for the welfare of her son and daughter. Tom works in a warehouse, longs to be a poet and finds his life stunted by the dependence of his small family. Sister Laura, emotionally and physically crippled and so painfully shy she's unable to maintain any kind of outside life, keeps company with a collection of glass animals. Into this hothouse atmosphere comes a gentleman caller — a friend from work whom Tom, at his mother's urging, has invited to dinner.

Martha Harmon Pardee hangs on to the past and present in The Glass Menagerie.
Martha Harmon Pardee hangs on to the past and present in The Glass Menagerie.

There are many good things about this Paragon Theatre production. Director Warren Sherrill is not afraid of pauses, and these pauses resonate. There's a terrific sequence — both funny and true-to-life — that occurs after Tom and Amanda have had a falling-out. The two sit in silence, he at the table, she on the couch. He looks at her, then looks away. She does the same with him. The space between them hums with tension.

The pleasing lines of David Lafont's set suggest a homey apartment, but true to the theme of memory, all detail has been erased: The frame supposedly holding a photograph of the absent telephone man is empty, Laura's glass animals purely imaginary. The actors are called on to suggest most of the objects mentioned — pillows, newspapers, food, eating utensils — through mime. The lighting, by Jen Orf, is warm and evocative, though there's one major problem. During the final scenes, the apartment is supposed to be lit only by candlelight. The stage dims, and we wait for a cheat, a slowly growing brightness. It never comes. And so the bittersweet scene at the very heart of the play, the one in which Jim, the gentleman caller, talks to Laura and even persuades her to dance, loses definition. Like many of Williams's neurasthenic, too-sensitive-for-this-world figures, the character of Laura was inspired by the playwright's own sister, Rose, who suffered from schizophrenia and, after a botched lobotomy, remained institutionalized for life. Barbra Andrews wisely plays Laura not as a swoony, romantic figure, but as a genuinely disturbed young girl. It's a wonderfully muted and subtle performance. But as Laura slowly comes alive to Jim, we strain to see her face — and find it hidden in shadow.

All the casting is very strong. In this hushed, reverent production, we're grateful for the vitality of Martha Harmon Pardee as Amanda Wingfield. She's the kind of monstrously controlling mother who can't watch her son eat without directing him to "chew" because "a well-cooked meal has many delicate flavors that have to be held in the mouth for appreciation." She won't give him a moment alone to write; she makes her daughter's life miserable. But during a period of profound economic depression, her fears and obsessions make sense — and they speak to us now. In some ways, Amanda's contempt for her children's dreaminess, her insistence on holding on to both her son and his tiny paycheck, her struggles to marry off her daughter, her part-time job selling magazine subscriptions over the phone, are genuinely heroic. Pardee's rich, fully realized and powerful performance brings every aspect of Amanda's character to life.

Tom is Williams's stand-in in the script, and Michael Stricker is pleasingly naturalistic in the role, comfortably and believably breaching the fourth wall. But though there's real emotion here, this Tom is a touch too reasonable and never communicates the all-engulfing passion to write that will force him to abandon his family. A onetime high-school sports hero, the gentleman caller is a more complex figure than you'd expect. He's bought all the marketing babble about self-presentation and self-promotion, and he glibly identifies Laura's deep pathology as an inferiority complex. Yet this young man is also kind and empathetic — and his kindness will betray poor Laura more surely than deliberate cruelty ever could. Josh Hartwell is older than I imagine Jim to be, and less athletic-looking, but he brings all the intelligence and ambiguity the role requires.

Sherrill's emphasis on the play's long-ago, preserved-in-amber quality gives it depth and clarity, but sometimes his production feels a little too measured, too like those golden, honey-dripping summer days that first create a sense of trance, then slowly lull you into sleep.

 
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