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The Glass Menagerie at the Berkeley Rep

Blowing the Dust off the American Classic

Few classic plays lend themselves well to modern interpretations, no matter how true to the iconic original, and Tennessee Williams is the American exemplar of this very basic dramaturgical principle. Williams' motley cast of vituperative viragos, silver-tongued Southern cads, and slinky but invariably histrionic temptresses has made for oodles of overacted, hair shirt renditions -- histrionic poetry screamed aloud rather than whispered without the understated moodiness and tragic-comic ambivalence that Williams might have intended.

Williams' masterwork, "The Glass Menagerie", is the four-headed hydra that few actors are capable of bravely facing. Film revivals have never quite captured the faint plaintiveness of the original, and theatre actors are perpetually mucking it up with superfluous modern subtexts and voluble malarkey. In contrast, Les Waters' version of the play, currently at the Berkeley Repertory theatre, shakes off the cobwebs from the 1944 magnum opus and quietly spins a work of restrained genius.

"The Glass Menagerie" drips with the bloody, metallic aftertaste of times a-changed. At the center of the play are the Wingfields, a 30s family covered in the dust of the antebellum South. Amanda Wingfield, a powerful and vital matriarch who clings stubbornly to her memories of jonquils, gentlemen callers, and dandelion wine, is haunted by her former belledom and the memory of a noncommittal husband who abandoned her and their two children years ago.

It's a piece that scrutinizes loss, unfulfilled expectations, and human indignity with such an utter lack of sentimentality that we feel closer to these characters than we do those in Williams' other plays. The pace is both plodding yet dreamlike, triangulating the hidden yearnings and embittered recollections of this unhappy trio.
Veteran actress Rita Moreno (who debuted at Berkeley Rep in 2004's "Master Class") plays an unlikely yet effective Amanda -- a deceptively fragile fading magnolia who switches from seething, contemptuous displays of rage to wispy, pain-soaked reminiscences of better days. She shares a dilapidated St. Louis apartment with her antisocial crippled daughter Laura (played by Emily Donahoe) and her sullen, defeated poet son Tom (Erik Lochtefeld), who is also the narrator and sweeps the audience into the tale with prescient, gossamer soliloquies about memory and illusion.

While Laura may be physically crippled, the resentful, emasculated Tom bears all the marks of a spiritual cripple -- escaping from his mother's suffocating grip through cinema, drink, and a secret desire to join the Merchant Marines. In fact, the entire play can be seen as a tableau of escapism. Laura lives her dreams vicariously through her collection of glass animals and love songs on an old Victrola. And light designer Matt Frey's eerie, soft washes of light illuminate the stage floor, catching Amanda in delicate poses as she stands ruminating, glaze-eyed, on her lost girlhood.

While Amanda is generally portrayed as a vicious, castrating harridan in other productions of the play, Moreno imbues her character with such wistful yearning that it's difficult not to sympathize with her and view her as just as much of a victim of circumstance as any of the other characters. A scene in which Amanda slips onstage wearing a ridiculous, frilly gown from a dusty old trousseau inspires laughs, as do her girlish declarations while she sips coyly on dandelion wine, but seeing this dam(aged) woman in the final throes of nostalgia is agonizingly tragic.

When Tom brings home Jim (played by Terrence Riordan), a colleague at the warehouse where he works, Amanda gets it in her head that Jim could be a potential suitor for Laura. In fact, we discover that Jim, a former golden boy now reduced to empty goals and hackneyed self-improvement mantras, went to high school with both Tom and Laura (who silently pined for him). Much like the Wingfields, Jim represents the abasement of former glories, the violent toppling of dreams from the pedestal of the past. When Jim plies Laura with encouraging platitudes about believing in herself, the scene is almost heartbreaking because we are privy to the squalid realities of both their lives and know that the uncharacteristic, worshipful glimmer of hope in Laura's eyes will be pointlessly short-lived.

Laura's collection of glass animals seems to represent the ethereal fragility of dreams and memories ("Blow and it breaks," she warns Jim), and they constantly shatter, despite her careful ministrations. This metaphor also true for all the characters -- from the raging, desperate Tom to the falsely confident Jim. Scott Bradley's elegant yet shabby set of the Wingfields' apartment sits atop a metal-grated fire escape flanked by crumbling bricks and the seedy flashing lights of a neighboring nightclub, as if to evince the danger and possibility of the world outside while the world within the murky tenement vestibule progressively closes in on the characters.

The acting in "The Glass Menagerie" is painstakingly nuanced, layered with ferocity and sincerity, but Moreno -- a diminutive 74-year old who kittenishly skulks across the stage with all the quintessence of a Southern belle -- steals the show entirely, fashioning a forceful trope of bereavement.

Waters' version of "The Glass Menagerie" is intimate and refined, a chaste and dreamy recitation with none of the bombastics of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" or that carnivorous gem of the American fin de siecle:" "Suddenly, Last, Summer". As Tom addresses his family after already having left them behind, or as Amanda recalls filling her house with jonquils as a young woman, the mordant sting of the present is carefully bracketed by the flimsy illusion of the past. It's an intense and exquisite juxtaposition that leaves the senses reeling. And it's a production true to Williams' commentary on the abortive, cyclical nature of loss. The world is collapsing. The world is intact. And the world goes on.

Through May 31st at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre