When done well, Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie makes you feel like you’re at a family dinner with all the skeletons out of their closets, sitting next to you at the table in plain sight. And Theatre Three does it quite well, opening its 2015-2016 season with a strong showing from newly minted artistic director Bruce R. Coleman that skillfully adapts Williams’ classic play to the theater’s in-the-round design.
The Glass Menagerie is a highly autobiographical work for Williams, drawing on his experiences and his own relatives to tell the story of the Wingfield family. Tom Wingfield, the beleaguered narrator and stand-in for Williams himself, dreams of becoming a poet and seeing the world while toiling daily in a shoe factory to support his overbearing mother Amanda and his fragile sister Laura, who is so painfully shy that she cannot even hold a job. Instead, Laura shuts out her mother’s voice and her brother’s concern and finds solace in her treasured collection of glass animals. But that isn’t good enough for Amanda, who desperately wants Laura to have the stability of a husband that she herself was unable to find.
Williams calls The Glass Menagerie a “memory play,” and that hazy sense of remembrance is conjured through Lisa Miller’s evocative lighting and impeccable sound design by Rich Frolich that seamlessly incorporates the music of Laura’s records and the dance hall across the alley. The late 1930s setting is brought to life through the well-executed costumes and set, both a part of Coleman’s vision for the production.
Connie Coit fills every corner of the stage as matriarch Amanda, perfectly portraying the wistful yearning of the life she might have once had — the kind of life she wants to see her daughter living — and the passive-aggressiveness that dominates the former debutante’s interactions with her children. Coit is able to conjure sympathy and rage for her character at the same time, which is no small feat for a character that can often be more of a caricature of a Southern stereotype. Her comedic timing is razor sharp, commanding the laughs that sneak out of the dark corners of Williams’ dialogue.
Blake Blair had a few stumbles as Tom, though overall his performance is quite solid. There are times when his deep concern and love for Laura feels a bit more Flowers in the Attic than perhaps is actually intended. But he strikes the right notes of discord, especially with Coit, as he struggles to find the balance between chasing his dreams and caring for his family. Blair is especially strong in the very last scene, on the verge of tears as he pleads with Laura to blow out her candles, leaving the audience in the darkness of the theater.
Allison Pistorius does not look like the delicate creature that Laura is often imagined to be, but she uses her height to her advantage, hunching her shoulders and turning in on herself as a physical manifestation of Laura’s paralyzing shyness and the limp she carries from a bout with polio. The only times she opens up is when she is lost in the world of her glass animals, holding them up to sparkle in the light. The entire production pivots around Laura, and as such Pistorius plays well against the rest of the cast, though her inflections can at times be distractingly singsong.
Sterling Gafford lends some lovely nuances to the role of Jim O’Connor, the infamous Gentleman Caller. Jim can easily be played as a flat has-been trying to rekindle his glory days through Laura’s admiring eyes, but Gafford infuses him with a sweet, genuine earnestness that contrasts well against Tom’s frustrated wanderlust. The connection between Gafford and Pistorius is keen and poignant, making their scenes together all the more heartbreaking.
Williams’ plays can be difficult to get right, but The Glass Menagerie at Theatre Three is not to be missed. The organization has navigated an immense amount of change in the last year, but if this production is anything to go by, it has come out on the other side of that change even stronger than before.