“The Glass Menagerie” is the play that made Tennessee Williams famous. Its Broadway debut in 1945 was an instant success, paving the way for the previously unknown playwright to write bigger, bolder plays, like the 1947 follow-up, “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
While “The Glass Menagerie” lacks the salaciousness and violence of some of Williams’ later works, it would be an oversight to dismiss the play as a stale old relic, some reminder of a long-ago English class.
A new production by Le Petit Théâtre du Vieux Carré, running through April 3, proves this Tennessee Williams classic is as vital and relevant as ever.
Widely considered one of Williams’ most autobiographical plays, “The Glass Menagerie” focuses on Tom, an aspiring poet grinding out his days at a St. Louis shoe factory. His mother is a faded Southern belle, far removed from the plantations of her youth, and his sister, Laura, is physically disabled and painfully shy.
The family patriarch is present only in a framed photograph on the living room wall, a deadbeat described as “a telephone man who fell in love with long distances.”
The characters in the play all bear a heavy burden of expectation, imagining some impossible future that will liberate them from the small, dingy apartment, yet they can’t escape the daily reminders of their desperate reality.
The clash between truth and fantasy — the way things are and the way things should be — is central to the play, and it’s a common theme in Williams’ work.
Under the direction of Maxwell Williams, who also serves as Le Petit’s artistic director, this production doesn’t ramp up the melodrama by making strict distinctions between fantasy and reality.
Instead, the approach is honest and realistic, as the characters realize the foolishness of their dreams, but can’t help getting caught up in the possibility of a brighter tomorrow, even if they know it’s a longshot.
The cast is anchored by Annalee Jefferies, who delights as Amanda Wingfield, pouring on the charm and parading around with humor and grace. She portrays Amanda’s big personality with a light touch, finding a sweetness in the incessant scolding and nagging, which makes it all the more heartbreaking when she truly lashes out.
As Tom, Curtis Billings finds a similar balance, showing deep affection for his mother and sister, despite feeling increasingly trapped in his role as the family’s breadwinner.
The war of words between Amanda and Tom dominates much of the first half — verbal sparring that escalates from good-natured ribbing to vicious shouting matches — until they’re both ashamed of their behavior but no less committed to their convictions.
The second act is quiet and more intimate, as Amanda and Tom disappear in the background to allow some privacy for Laura and Jim, the long-awaited gentleman caller that Amanda hopes will save her daughter from a lifetime of loneliness.
Lucy Faust, as Laura, blossoms in these scenes, revealing the complicated emotions of a young woman engaged in a courtship that seems too good to be true.
Kevin Rothlisberger plays Jim with a lunk-headed sincerity that further illuminates the heart-wrenching despair of the Wingfield family.
The scenic design by Jeff Cowie reflects the dilemmas of the characters by pairing once-elegant furnishings with a stark concrete exterior. The lighting design is effective as well, particularly in the second act, which takes place by candlelight.
“The Glass Menagerie” is a compassionate, emotional affair, bursting at the seams with longing and sorrow. As the family wrestles with destructive social forces and personal desires, Le Petit’s production captures the complexity of Williams’ characters and the timelessness of their plight.