Review: The Glass Menagerie Is Shiny But Shallow at the Denver Center

The room, with its floor of lighted squares, seems small and isolated in darkness. It’s edged by the black metal railings of the fire escape. This is St. Louis, where author Tennessee Williams grew up, during the impoverished years of the 1930s, and The Glass Menagerie is autobiographical, a memory play, the events it shows supposedly as dreamlike and uncertain as memory.

The story is told by Tom Wingfield, Williams’s alter ego, a young man trudging daily to a dead-end job in order to support Amanda, his onetime-Southern belle mother, and his frail sister, Laura, who suffers a limp and some unnamed psychological weakness. The fire escape is his sanctuary, the place where he goes to think, remember and write. Until one evening, when a moment of something close to hope enters the Wingfields’ enclosed life in the shape of a Gentleman Caller for Laura: the affable Jim O’Connor, one of Tom’s fellow workers.

The Glass Menagerie is poetic and carefully crafted, a small piece capable of arousing large thoughts. It leaves with us a lasting image of a vulnerable young girl and her menagerie of glass animals — in this production, the animals are not set on a shelf or placed in a cabinet but suspended in air, glinting, a fantastical mini-forest that Amelia Pedlow’s Laura can walk through — and when she removes a piece from this enchanted mobile, you know no good can come of it.

From Tom’s first monologue, as performed by Aubrey Deeker, we’re alerted to the fact that the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company's production of this venerated 1944 play will not be the usual gentle, nostalgic one. Deeker’s Tom is less a lost young poet than a trickster, caustic and angry, as histrionic in his own way as Amanda is in hers. This may be a valid take on the role, and it did elicit laughs several times in places where I’d never heard laughs before during a performance of The Glass Menagerie, but it sacrifices audience empathy and makes even Tom’s occasional gesture of affection or concern seem sardonic rather than sincere.

Amanda is a performer, too, both as written and as Kathleen McCall plays her. She’s stuck in a remembered past of suitors, elegance and financial ease, a past she evokes constantly when she’s not nagging her children about everything from their posture to the way they eat, and insisting that Tom help get his sister married off. Amanda is usually seen as a destructive figure, but McCall’s version is more lost than destructive. She softens Amanda’s endless criticisms, often making them good-natured, flirtatious and sweetly daffy. Again, this is a reasonable interpretation, but it underplays Amanda’s very real strength of will and gives Tom little to struggle against. As a result, he seems doubly churlish for abandoning her and Laura.

Pedlow's Laura is gentle, understated and affecting, and her transformation under the friendly attentions of the Gentleman Caller is deeply touching. Jim is the most realistic character in the play,  and John Skelley’s performance brings warmth and kindliness to the role, while also letting us see the character’s weaknesses and blind spots. Jim, too, is a dreamer, and though his dreams may seem more realistic than those of the Wingfields, they’re absurd in the true spirit of the times: He believes positive thinking can cure Laura of her insecurity, and also that his public speaking course will enable him to climb the professional ranks.

This is a respect-worthy production that provides food for thought — but very little emotional resonance.

The Glass Menagerie. Presented by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company through October 16. Ricketson Theatre. Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100,