Glass Menagerie is a delicate imbalance

Tampa Rep’s revival may glisten, but Tennessee Williams fans will be a tougher crowd.

What should we want from revivals of classic plays? One of two things, I think: either performances which better than others seem to realize the playwright’s original intentions; or interpretations that takes liberties — however daring — in the service of an unexpected but still persuasive vision. I don’t have to look far to find an example of the first type: Emilia Sargent’s portrayal of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire only a few months ago. In that play — presented by Tampa Repertory Theatre — Sargent was so stunningly multicolored, you had the feeling that she was taking tragic Blanche to her limit, and abundantly fulfilling Tennessee Williams’ every intention, conscious and otherwise.

As for the second type of performance, I think of the whole cast of Shakespeare’s Pericles in Jobsite Theater’s production three-and-a-half years ago. To name just one of that show’s inspired actors, Stephen Ray as mob figure Perry (formerly Pericles) was terrific as he slowly overcame his bad-guy instincts and came to understand his obligations to wife and daughter. Sargent’s Blanche was utterly different in intention from Ray’s Perry — but both were more than satisfying. On The Nose or Off The Wall, these performances spoke volumes.

Well, now Tampa Rep is bringing us another Williams classic — The Glass Menagerie — and it’s pleasant in its conservative way, but not revelatory or even particularly illuminating. As directed by C. David Frankel, this Menagerie wants to be by-the-book but doesn’t justify itself the way Streetcar did with Sargent’s great performance. Yes, Sargent is excellent here as Amanda Wingfield, but her Amanda is precisely the one we’ve come to expect over the years — vain but loving, histrionic but heroic. If this weren’t a show that’s been done repeatedly (the third version I’ve seen since becoming CL’s theater critic), I might be satisfied with Sargent and Frankel’s “standard” interpretation. But revivals, as I’ve said, should exist for a good reason.

Making matters more troublesome, John Jon Gennari’s portrayal of Tom Wingfield — the play’s narrator, based on Williams himself — is never convincing. Gennari’s Tom is goofy and more or less short-tempered, but almost entirely without the gravitas that this tormented dreamer needs to have. Dan Rosenstrauch as Jim, the “Gentleman Caller,” at least plays the part serviceably, and Maggie Mularz as self-doubting Laura also turns in an adequate interpretation. But even in these cases, key questions remain unresolved.

When Jim dares to kiss shrinking violet Laura, is he motivated by pity, real attraction, or some other emotion? Or when Laura offers Jim her unicorn-without-a-horn, is it with gratitude for making her “normal” with his attentions, or is it an act of despair as she realizes that she may never have a lover? No way to tell from these performances. I have to think too that the vastly talented Sargent would be stimulated to higher attainments if the actors she was working with offered real challenges. She’s more or less on her own here — she slams the ball into the forehand court and nobody hits back with any real force. And that’s too bad — because a son with growing wanderlust and a daughter with agoraphobia should test Amanda pretty heftily. Sargent’s got all the moves — now it’s up to her fellow characters to force her to display them.

I can only recommend this Menagerie, therefore, to people who don’t yet know the play. With nothing to compare it with, you’ll still have Williams’ poetic language and his poignant, lovely tale about four souls trying to find their way through the Great Depression (and each other’s proximity). Note how each lives in fantasy: Amanda in memories of her youth and her 17 gentlemen callers, Tom with his movies and his dream of the merchant marine, Laura with her glass animals, and Tom with his future that certainly, certainly will offer more than his present.

To those unacquainted with any other productions, Frankel’s direction will feel more than sufficient, and the final duet between Jim and Laura will move and surprise. And whether you’re familiar with the script or not, Amanda Bearss’ set, furnished with antiques, will easily please, as will the ’30s togs designed by Mike and Kathy Buck. After some early problems, TRT under Frankel can now be depended upon to look good.

As for me: reader, I got bored. When it became clear that this was going to go neither deeper nor further than past productions, I found myself losing interest. Sargent’s performance was always worth noting, but there didn’t seem any point in scrutinizing any of the other actors.

I don’t think I’ve become jaded; I just wanted magic, and didn’t find much. Which is a shame when the play is as wonderful as Glass Menagerie.

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