Monday, January 10, 2005

The Spare Set Steals the Show

In his book Genius, Harold Bloom describes his "powerlessness" in trying to explain why the United States has only produced a handful of dramatists who even come close to approaching any kind of timeless creative powers. He muses that Tennessee Williams may be the only one who can hope to approach canonical status.

All of our feelings about Harold Bloom aside, the Lyric’s new, spare production of Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, makes an excellent case for his argument. There is something just right about the set, even upon first entering the theatre. The steel firescape, which hangs outside the cramped Saint Louis apartment where the events of the play unfold, has basically taken over the whole, black, right-angled set. Only a few props throughout suggest a homier atmosphere, but they are few and far between, and to my surprise, the titular central set piece of the play is nowhere to be seen.

This really is a play about memory. Afterwards you will swear that you saw the apartment, but I assure you it is not there. The audience will be excited to know that in place of those little glass animals, passages, which sometimes are buried to us, are allowed to come glimmering to the surface. For instance, Tom’s narration is infused with rumblings of war. (Although, maybe current events are helping that particular imagery spring forward.)

Director Eric Engel has dissected the play well and has not fallen into the trap of sentimentality, which hampers so many productions. If you love Glass Menagerie for its weepy climax, this probably isn’t the production for you. But, it is truer, in my opinion, to Williams’ intelligent assessment of his own feelings toward a certain time in his life and the life of the country.

Vincent Sider’s Tom delivers the closing with just the right amount of forced wry cynicism. He is a Tom who wants to play the sarcastic and cynical writer, swimming on the surface, but who knows too well the deep currents of horrible truths that run through his little domestic drama.

Like conceptual Shakespeare productions, this Glass Menagerie is refreshing for those used to seeing the play. However, unlike a lot of Shakespeare we see, Erik Engel’s concept is not gimmicky, but rather a sensitive interpretation of this deceivingly complex masterpiece.

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