The amazing thing about Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie, now playing at the New Theatre in Coral Gables, is the way it keeps telling you things, no matter how many times you've seen it. After Saturday's opening-night production, Carbonell voter Marzi Kaplan rose from her seat and said, "I didn't think I needed to see that play one more time. I guess I did."
I knew what she meant. Marzi, a stern but openhearted critic who I suppose is around 60 years old, is still finding things in the Williams classic. I'm 26, and I am too.
One reason Menagerie's lasting resonance is remarkable is that Williams was only 32 when he wrote it. Nevertheless, the play begins with words that seem written by an old man, looking ruefully back at "the 1930s, when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind." The narrator's tone is simultaneously evasive and all-knowing, his allusions both rock-solid (a scene-setting mention of the battle at Guernica) and obtuse (what school for the blind?). He seems to speak more for his own relief than for the instruction or amusement of any audience.
He also seems to be putting us on. This opening scene is the one moment in the play when Williams puts on airs, writing with a baroque gravitas that comes naturally to no 30-year-old, nor to anyone. It is fitting that Cliff Burgess, the baby-faced actor who delivers these lines, seems separated from puberty's outer edge by nothing more substantial than a bushy stick-on mustache.
For most of the play's remainder, Burgess's character, Tom Wingfield, acts his age. As he explains, The Glass Menagerie is a "memory play" wherein Tom looks back to his late adolescence, specifically to a few days in the Wingfields' St. Louis apartment. There, Tom's mother, Amanda (Angie Radosh), lives in a fantasy world of antique gentility and holds court with the ghosts of the Old South, which she both misses and idealizes. She isn't crazy — just old — but when she loudly decries her children's table manners or laments the absence of any "gentleman callers" who've come to see about her daughter, Laura (Katherine Michelle Tanner), there is a glint of apprehension in her drawl. It is as though she fears that when her beloved Old Southern conventions are swept away, she'll be swept along with them. Already she is nearly alone, abandoned by her hard-drinking husband, without any means beyond what her son brings in from a warehouse job. She clutches to her few hopes — the possibility of her son's success or her daughter's marriage to a decent boy — with the tenacity of a cat with its claws in a screen.
It won't help. Tom wants out of there. He's had enough of women and of this desiccated memory palace. His mother's only other companion, her spinster daughter Laura, is so far from marriageable she's nearly unwatchable: A slight physical defect in one leg has, over the course of her life, turned her into a jittering mass of nerves, all averted gazes and tremulous murmurs. She spends her days playing her absent father's old records on a Victrola and fiddling with her favorite possessions: the animals in her glass menagerie.
The play hinges upon the disharmony between Laura's fragile state and her mother's ambitions for her. So desperate is Amanda to see her daughter married off that she conscripts her son to invite a man from work to sup. As it happens, the man, James O'Connor (Christopher Vicchiollo), was Laura's high school crush — a coincidence that greatly enhances Laura's manifold insecurities when he arrives.
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The visit is painful to watch, galling almost. But in New Theatre's performance, as in so many at the playhouse, there is also an aching beauty in the exchange — in O'Connor's unexpected kindness, in Laura's slow yielding to his solicitations. It is exquisite and so full of nuance it's impossible to describe in a space this small. As Laura's long scene with her gentleman caller proceeds, The Glass Menagerie seems to take in and consider every aspect, every human implication of the unfolding drama, and addresses them like leitmotifs in an opera's overture: ascending passages of optimism followed by doom-struck chords of dashed hope; then the sweeping and short-lived crescendos of revelation and freedom; and finally, above it all, the high, sustained notes of human fear and loneliness.
The cast does its job through all of this, although only Angie Radosh transcends it. She plays Amanda Wingfield like a fan would, like someone who has seen the play, read it, thought about it, and long ago found her heart in sympathy with every stupid decision Mrs. Wingfield makes for her children. There is an unmistakable conviction in the set of her head and in her carriage. It really means something to this woman that Tom and Laura slowly chew their food.
The other actors are, at the very least, good enough to get out of the way and let Williams's words do the heavy lifting. As they do, several things worth mulling over might occur to someone sitting in the audience. Like, for example, the universal appearance of economic fear and dislocation: It looks the same now as it did in the '30s, and Radosh's performance will be unnervingly familiar to anyone acquainted with family women of a certain age who know for a fact they'll never retire with dignity.
The Glass Menagerie really is a play about a dinner, and in it, Williams felt free to address everything: longing, fear, historical imperatives, familial love, romantic love, wanderlust, desperation. Nowadays, similar ambitions are aired only in a world-historic context or with an ironic wink. Williams had no irony. He had the cojones to say it all, and to say it with a straight face. Leaving New Theatre, I was moved and a little heartbroken, but my most conscious thought was totally meta: They just don't write them like they used to.