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THEATRE REVIEW: Barrington Stage’s ‘The Glass Menagerie’ is a beautiful gift not to be missed

Every soul's open injuries are bared here; everyone's personal fears and qualms and hopes and dreams coalesce into a tapestry of distorted recollections.

The Glass Menagerie
By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Julianne Boyd

“Things of the mind and the spirit”

Caitlin O’Connell as Amanda Wingfield in the Barrington Stage Company production of ‘The Glass Menagerie.’ Photo: Daniel Rader

A memory play is something very precious: to be handled with extreme care, with attention paid to the details, to the finest aspects of the memory. It is something guarded with the body, the mind, the spirit, as author Tennessee Williams likes to remind us in his first great play, the 1944 hit “The Glass Menagerie,” now onstage at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in an extraordinarily fine production. “Extraordinarily fine” because the details are all there, exposed like nerves in a deep wound, affected by the air, the dust, the blood itself. Director Julianne Boyd’s take on this play is one of exposure: Every soul’s open injuries are bared here; everyone’s personal fears and qualms and hopes and dreams coalesce into a tapestry of distorted recollections. What emerges, ultimately, is the wonder of poetry and how it affects the lives of one man’s family.

Tom Wingfield, the story’s author, narrates the incidents that freed him from the daily grind of family responsibility, though it left him with emotional challenges hard to confront, and also puts him into the center of the action as the time past becomes the time present. From his perspective we enter into the struggle for personal space, for human need, for understanding, for truth brought to bear on an impossible situation. We learn of his sister, his mother, his friend, used to betray his own loved ones and expose their weaknesses—especially to expose his mother, Amanda, to the realities of her life as it was lived in the time he writes about.

Amanda is played in this production by Caitlin O’Connell. Amanda is a faded Southern belle who has never put behind her the illusions of beauty, popularity, feminine persuasion. She has never acknowledged her failed marriage, her children’s shortcomings, her lost possibilities. O’Connell gives Amanda everything but bitterness. Even when she upbraids her son or her daughter for their failures, there is a tone of encouragement in her voice. Her intoned accusation to Laura, “Deception, deception, deception,” ends with a change of perspective, almost unveiled pride in her daughter’s lack of accomplishment, which leads to a less accusative tone. The actress in the role may be the real Tom’s mother, but she is also her own person—and a shared personality, at that. O’Connell shows us the generous side of Amanda, willing to sacrifice everything for her children, who don’t want anything from her. This Amanda, unlike others I’ve seen, will always hug her betrayers, for she truly understands who they are underneath and she plays the internal forgiveness combined with guilt beautifully. For a change, we don’t hate Amanda for her intolerant, unforgiving ways; instead we tremble with her, cry with her, love with her. When her electricity fails, rather than accuse Tom, she realizes his failure with him. These are modest differences from the normal, but enormous differences in the way the play works.

Tyler Lansing Weaks as Jim in the Barrington Stage Company production of ‘The Glass Menagerie.’ Photo: Daniel Rader

The young man who enters the modest apartment that houses the Wingfields, their “Gentleman Caller,” is played by Tyler Lansing Weaks, a newcomer to Barrington Stage Company. Handsome, charming, with a winning smile and a sincerity that astounds, he lends a real romantic nature to the play. He actually brings light into the darkness of all three Wingfield lives. His sweetness transforms O’Connell’s Amanda and alters the natural gruffness of Tom’s demeanor. But it is his effect on Laura, Tom’s shy, reticent sister, that brings a sudden flair of wholesome life into the play. Weaks plays the man the way that Tom remembers him, as an almost too-good-to-be-true sort of fellow. Even so, there is no artifice in his nature. His smile is just a smile. His kiss is just a kiss. It is a smile and a kiss that Tom dreams of, longs for, looks for, seeks but never finds for himself. In a memory he cannot possibly possess, for he is not in the room with them, has not witnessed, Tom’s image of his friend and his sister is pure supposition and, as played by Weaks and Angela Janas, it is a beautiful dream that shatters, as all dreams must when the dreamer awakens. Weaks is ideal in this role. He brings all human longing to bear, and he plays it out with simplicity and honesty.

Angela Janas as Laura in the Barrington Stage Company production of ‘The Glass Menagerie.’ Photo: Daniel Rader

Similarly, Angela Janas tweaks the usual reticence of Laura into a burgeoning enthusiasm that feels so very right. She plays the shyness of the girl perfectly, retreating physically from human interaction, leaving only a shadow of her character in view. She protests innocence while harboring dreams of love and lust just out of view, exposed occasionally and then tucked away once more. Unlike other actresses who’ve played this role, she never seems to come between Tom and their mother.

At the end of the first act, alone with Amanda, Laura makes a wish on the moon, but it is not her own wish, it is her mother’s and it is Amanda who speaks it out loud. In Janas’ body and face, we can see her taking on the wish, rejecting it, holding onto it. This actress seems to never have a still moment when she is on stage. Everything that happens is charged with her personal electricity. As Tom ends the play talking over time and distance to his sister, we can watch her do what he hopes he is telling her to do even though the metaphoric finale of the play is as impossible as anything could be. Janas brings a chilling reality to their connection and its loss. She, without a word uttered, moves the audience to tears. She is an actress with that gentle ability and it is a joy to watch her work in this role.

Mark H. Dols at Tom in the Barrington Stage Company production of ‘The Glass Menagerie.’ Photo: Daniel Rader

Mark H. Dold delivers his finest performance in this role; Tom Wingfield as remembered by Tom (Tennessee) Wingfield (Williams) is a disaster of a young man, a person without a future, or a present and with no past worth reliving. Already exhibiting tendencies that will later dominate his life, Tom moves, dreamlike, back and forth in his story. He handles Williams’ poetic narration with ease and with a sentimental joy. “He knew of my secret practice of retiring to a cabinet of the washroom to work on poems whenever business was slack in the warehouse. He called me Shakespeare. And while the other boys in the warehouse regarded me with suspicious hostility, Jim took a humorous attitude toward me. Gradually his attitude began to affect the other boys and their hostility wore off.” These words by Tennessee Williams are nearly sung when spoken by Dold. His reading of them as the narrator reveals a love that is never visible, never overheard in the scenes that follow, but Dold makes them resonate with a difficult reality that lends true beauty to them.

There are many of these moments in this play. When Tom apologizes to his mother, Dold says it with harshness and difficulty yet it comes out sweet and sincere. When he chats amiably with Jim, the Gentleman Caller, there is an undertone of distancing, of moving to a safety zone. Dold delivers many of his lines with a bisected beauty, half-involved and half-uninvolved. I don’t know how he does it, but I do know that the effect is startling and we learn more about Tom in a few words than I have ever known in the past: “For time is the longest distance between two places.”

Boyd’s production is simply beautiful. It is subtly and sensitively delivered. This is one of her finest directorial deliveries, a special delivery across a long distance. Her work is abetted by her designers’ superb deliverables: a perfect set by Brian Prather; remarkable costumes by Elivia Bovenzi; extraordinary lighting by Matthew Richards; excellent sound by Joel Abbott; beautiful new music by Alexander Sovronsky played beautifully in the fire-escape heaven by violist Susan French.

Barrington Stage Company brings us a beautiful autumn gift, a first-class production of an American classic. It is not to be missed.

Mark H. Dold, Susan French, Caitlin O’Connell and Angela Janas in the Barrington Stage Company production of ‘The Glass Menagerie.’ Photo: Daniel Rader

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The Glass Menagerie plays at Barrington Stage Company’s Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, 30 Union St., Pittsfield, Massachusetts, through Sunday, Oct. 21. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, go to barringtonstageco.org or call the box office at (413) 236-8888.

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