Performance Network's 'Glass Menagerie' will break your heart - in a good way
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One of the marks of a timeless, classic play like Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” now being staged at Performance Network, is that even when you’ve read it and seen it multiple times, and thus know precisely how the story unfolds, you get swept up anew by it every time and start rooting for what you know, on a rational level, will never, ever happen.
A self-described “memory play,” “Glass” is narrated by Tom (Kevin Young), an aspiring poet who must work in a shoe warehouse to support his abandoned mother, Amanda (Carla Milarch), and his intensely shy, disabled sister Laura (Emily Caffery). When Amanda pressures Tom to bring a friend home to dinner, in hopes of finding a potential match for Laura, Tom arrives with co-worker Jim O’Connor (Sebastian Gerstner), who, unbeknownst to Tom, has been the object of Laura’s infatuation since high school. (Running time for the Network’s production is just under two and a half hours, with one intermission.)
The Network’s production of “Glass” uses a version of the script (reportedly Williams’ favorite) that emphasizes the story’s dreamlike, “memory” qualities through abstract staging, including the use of projected images; pantomimed action (like Laura’s polishing and handling of the glass animals); violin accompaniment, as conducted by Tom; dissonant words and images (we’re repeatedly told Laura’s “crippled,” yet she has no limp); and devices like Tom standing outside of a scene while others inside it speak as if Tom were directly in front of them.
Underpinning this off-kilter sensibility is Monika Essen’s set (lit masterfully by Daniel C. Walker), consisting of three decayed, ramshackle walls as backdrop, a few sloping stairs in the center, two mildly undulating footbridges that run the length of the stage - one upstage, one downstage - and lace curtains on each side.
Is the classic play’s power enhanced by all this emphasis on the distortions and fancies of memory? Not necessarily. But it does make director Tim Rhoze’s production distinct from others, and provides a couple of intriguing “haven’t seen that before” moments.
The cast is solid, with Caffery doing her very best work in the second act, when talking with her gentleman caller. (Watch her response when Jim unthinkingly grabs her by the hand and runs outside, as well as when she says goodbye to him - great moments, both.) Young makes Tom’s conflict, between his own happiness and the survival of his mom and sister, palpably wrenching, particularly as the play reaches its endpoint. And Gerstner is truly terrific as Jim, a charming former "golden boy" who understands the set-up he’s walked into, and yet doesn’t fully understand the stakes for those involved.
Milarch, finally, elicits a level of sympathy for Amanda that’s rare. In many “Glass” productions, the iconic character can seem over-the-top and oppressive - particularly as Amanda keeps telling Tom, who works a job he hates in order to support them all, that he’s selfish - but Milarch’s Amanda is, at heart, a panicked, desperate mother who’s terrified regarding her hyper-vulnerable, fragile daughter's future.
All four actors do great justice to Williams’ gorgeous, poetic prose. And root though you might for a different outcome, the story will inevitably break your heart all over again - in the very best, most satisfying way possible.