Walking on broken glass

The Guthrie presents Tennessee Williams’ Depression-era play ‘The Glass Menagerie’

Haily Gostas

Before he mastered the art of the Southern Gothic storytelling style and penned Pulitzer Prize-winning greats like “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof,” legendary American playwright Tennessee Williams tested the waters with 1944’s “The Glass Menagerie,” an uncompromisingly candid (but arguably amateur in comparison) portrait of a fragile Depression-era family.

“The Glass Menagerie”
WHEN: Now through March 25
WHERE: The Guthrie Theater, 818 2nd St. S., Minneapolis
TICKETS: $22 to $52, (612) 377-2224, www.guthrietheater.org

After his first play, a fluffy comedy about two sailors looking for love, sank without much success, he found inspiration in the newer, more expressionistic forms infiltrating American writing at that time. To Williams, the fusion of tragi-romantic poetics with unabashed naturalism was the only right way to weave the Wingfield’s story, currently being retold at the Guthrie Theater .

Professors and playwrights regard the show as classic, and there is no denying the themes of single parenting and economic crises as unfortunately prevalent to modern times. Still, it is easy for the common theater-going public to view “The Glass Menagerie” as outdated in its depictions of the social and political landscapes of old. Plus, Williams’ early works seem doomed to exist in the shadows of what was to come.

Director Joe Dowling conveys a difficult project as best as possible, despite the play having been performed three times prior at the Guthrie alone. The result is a mild-mannered but faithful rendition, saved especially by its excellent acting.

Dowling daringly chose to split the role of Tom, the haunted Wingfield brother and son, between two separate actors. An older, more detached version (Bill McCallum) serves as somewhat of an unorthodox narrator, unfolding the action from the first scene onward, yet reinforcing that he is simply recounting a memory of what once was.

Set in 1930s St. Louis, “The Glass Menagerie” follows the determined but suffocating matriarch Amanda (Harriet Harris), desperately trying to provide for the future of her family after her husband’s abandonment 16 years prior, and in the midst of World War II’s financial uncertainty.

The younger of the two Toms (Randy Harrison) reluctantly assumes a warehouse job and becomes a budding alcoholic when his obligation as breadwinner to his mother and sister suppresses his sense of adventure and dreams of becoming a poet. His little sister Laura (Tracey Maloney) is a kind beauty burdened by a slight limp that has made her painfully shy and obsessively nervous. Her only solace is the collection of glass animals she lovingly keeps, and the retreat into private, childlike worlds it allows her.

Worried her daughter will become an old maid (and doggedly fueled by her own desires and disappointments), the meddling Amanda puts perhaps too much faith in Laura’s lone “gentleman caller,” as the arrival of the dopey but charming ex-high school hero Jim O’Connor (Jonas Goslow) could be the final factor that makes or breaks them all.

Though all the actors possess an impressive understanding of their characters, the Tony Award-winning Harris carries the show. She does an unflinchingly powerful job tackling the role of aging Southern belle Amanda, who could easily fall victim to a shrill, selfish interpretation. Harris gives her plenty of heart and humanity – a mother who above all else wishes happiness for her children but who realizes she, like the glass menagerie, is not eternally untouchable and can shatter under the cruel realities of her time period.

“The Glass Menagerie” was – and is – good but not great. In retrospect, you can see the seeds of true greatness Williams would go on to sew. Even in its 63-year-old status it remains a very young, somewhat unpolished work entirely dependent on the interpretations of its continuing productions.

Still, the attempt is there, and the effort and energy from a well-rounded cast and crew like the Guthrie’s are what keeps “The Glass Menagerie” timely and timeless.