‘The Glass Menagerie’ Still Makes Strong Case For Compassion (4.5 Stars)

The Glass Menagerie’ – Written by Tennessee Williams; Directed by Robbie McCauley; Scenic, Lighting, and Costume Design by Mirta Tocci; Sound Design by Oliver Seagle. Photo Credit, Pamela Green. Presented by Roxbury Repertory Theater at RCC Mainstage, Roxbury Community College, October 23-November 1.

World-renowned among theatre lovers, high school English students, and movie buffs alike (there are four film adaptations to date), Tennessee Williams’ 1944 seminal drama, “The Glass Menagerie,” experienced a transformative rendition as the 2014-15 season opener for Roxbury Repertory Theater. Directed with the inimitable and intimate sensibility for which critically-acclaimed theatre artist Robbie McCauley is best known, the layers of realism and memory that characterize this Depression-era play were punctured in a two-week production by bodies in dance-like motion, a visual art-tinged atmosphere, and distantly familiar jazz music-elements which converged to provide the audience with an unmistakable vision of our present historical moment.

Mirta Tocci’s superb scenic design set the tone as I entered the theatre. Unevenly intersecting ladders were suspended from the ceiling to form a roof over the living room of the Wingfield family (mother Amanda, son Tom, and daughter Laura). The darkness of the room was offset by a candle-like glow from the crystal chandelier glittering barely-perceptible multi-colored lights, a kitchen table, a couch, a balcony, and the namesake collection of glass animals, which appeared on the edge of the stage like vague jewels from a sweet dream. When the family first enters the stage in strides twinged with personal habit, we experience the bodies and the set mirroring each other, existing side-by-side but within their own tightly-defined realms of space.

Whether or not you’re familiar with the story of the Wingfields and their disarming one-night guest, Jim O’Connor, it takes only a few minutes to recognize its relevance across time and place. A small family marginalized by its father’s abandonment, low income, and general malaise brought on by the aftermath of war, we catch glimpses into their stress-laden dynamic that zeroes in on fixing Laura (performed by an unforgettable Emerald Johnson), who is debilitated, perhaps equally, by shyness and a deformed leg. While Amanda and Tom want only the best for her, their reasons are as opposite as night and day: Amanda obsessively awaits the chance to live vicariously through Laura’s potential suitors, while Tom witnesses Laura’s ever-quickening retreat away from her family and the outside world. To make matters worse for control-seeking Amanda, Tom begins rebelling against the die-cast life of factory work the family relies upon to scrape by.

As much as the three clash, however, they all have in common a white-knuckle grip on yearning for what lies just ahead-or, simultaneously, in the case of Amanda (entrancingly performed by Julie Dapper), what is stuck in the sands of bygone youth.

These first moments of the production reveal Tom and Laura as the black children of a white mother. While there have been other multi-racial and all-black productions of The Glass Menagerie-whose matriarch longs for the Old South and spouts racial perjoratives as casually as she nags Tom about his method of food chewing-I didn’t find any productions featuring black children with a white mother. McCauley steered her supremely talented, disciplined cast toward a quiet and steely exploration of private emotional chaos and familial ruin that confronts head-on the violence and intolerance rampant in our own backyards, as well as the world. Trayvon Martin’s and Michael Brown’s murders (and recent nationwide riots, particularly in Ferguson), as well as the Occupy movement, are excruciatingly concrete examples of McCauley’s statement in her program note: “(Williams’) plays disclose a poetic tension ever present in this country – its jazz, which includes differences – and connections – between race, class, gender and generations.”

As the play unfolded, the humor in Williams’ script arose alongside the political poignancy, and audience members chuckled knowingly in recognition of themselves and their families in the Wingfields’ everyday conversations and personal idiosyncrasies, especially Amanda’s eagle-eye parental attention to every detail. By the time the highly-awaited gentleman caller, Jim, arrived at their door for dinner, we waited with bated breath as his gentle demeanor with Laura unfolded, only to exhale ruefully as his exclamation of “Knowledge-Zzzzzp! Money-Zzzzzp!-Power!” cast an ominous cloud, resulting in the Wingfields’ family myth finally crumbling. Tom’s wistful abandonment, portrayed by Brandon Homer with the intensity and clarity so often found in spoken word, left the audience to reconcile our own truths and contradictions.

Theatre exhibiting an unparalleled level of artistry, social critique and empathy can only exist when injustice is looked squarely in the eye. I will long remember McCauley and her team as those who created one of the best works of art in any genre I’ve seen in the past ten years.