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The Glass Menagerie
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Philip Boehm
Upstream Theater
April 30, 2016

Linda Kennedy, J. Samuel Davis Photo by ProPhotSTL.com Upstream Theater

Linda Kennedy, J. Samuel Davis
Photo by ProPhotSTL.com
Upstream Theater

Tennessee Williams, who is generally regarded as one of America’s greatest playwrights, spent a good deal of his formative years in St. Louis. According to the biographical note in the program for the latest Upstream Theater production, Williams did not enjoy those years. Regardless of his fondness for the city or lack thereof, he was able to use those difficult years as inspiration for several of his plays, including the masterpiece The Glass Menagerie, in which Williams explores issues of regret, disappointment, and unrealized dreams. It’s a melancholy character study with a vivid setting in the city Williams remembered well, if not too fondly. At Upstream, Williams’ celebrated classic is brought to life with heartbreaking clarity, thanks to excellent production values and some truly great performances.

The semi-autobiographical play is told in flashback. Inspired by Williams’ own life and family, The Glass Menagerie centers around the memories of the elderly Tom Wingfield (J. Samuel Davis), who looks back on his young adult years living with his mother, Amanda (Linda Kennedy) and sister Laura (Sydney Frasure) in a tiny apartment in St. Louis. As Tom steps back into the action of his own memory, the story reveals a family characterized by lost hope and denial. Amanda is a well-meaning woman who lives in the past, with unrealistic hopes for her shy daughter, who spends most of her time collecting glass figurines and looking through her high school yearbook. Tom just wants to get out of St. Louis and his stifling job at a factory so he can join the merchant marines and see the world. He indulges his mother’s request to find a “gentleman caller” for Laura by inviting an old high school friend (Jason Contini), who works at the factory and on whom Laura had once had a crush, over for dinner.

This play has been staged many times over the years, on Broadway, regionally and around the world. It’s a piece that’s been read in high school and college classes. It’s one of those plays that can easily be seen with a sense of “oh that’s a Great Play” and somewhat of detached air. There’s no detachment with Upstream’s production, however. It’s fresh and vibrant, and very St. Louis. The sights and sounds are authentic enough to believe this world, which also has a slight imaginary twist since it’s being narrated as a memory. The extreme attention to detail in the production values and the superb casting are what bring this production to life.

Speaking of casting, this production boasts three of the more celebrated performers in St. Louis theatre as well as a relative newcomer who is remarkably talented. These characters are living, breathing, thinking and feeling people, fully realized in these outstanding portrayals. Kennedy’s Amanda is well-meaning, but lives in a state of denial that is heightened in this production. Davis does an excellent job of portraying Tom at different ages, from the older, regretful man looking back, to the younger, disillusioned dreamer yearning for escape. Frasure is heartbreakingly authentic as Laura, portraying all her social awkwardness as well as her twin senses of regret for the past and a renewed hope that’s encouraged by her mother and aided–at least for a time–by the visit from Contini’s charmingly awkward, sweet but also regretful Jim. In fact, it’s the scenes between Laura and Jim that are the highlight of this show. Their chemistry is 100% believable, and it’s achingly affecting.

The production values here are also first-rate, with painstaking attention to detail from scenic designer Michael Heil’s authentic-looking St. Louis apartment, to the meticulously appropriate costumes by Laura Hanson, to Claudia Horn’s excellent props. The period detail is seen in everything from the furniture to the antique phonograph, to Laura’s vintage wicker wheelchair. There’s also excellent atmospheric lighting by Steve Carmichael, and director Philip Boehm’s intelligent staging that emphasizes the closed-in feeling of the small apartment which amplifies the sense of a constricting society and social roles that the characters may feel forced to keep up.

The Glass Menagerie at Upstream is a memorable realization of a classic, performed in conjunction with the new Tennessee Williams Festival. It’s set in St. Louis’s past, but with its excellent cast and staging, the drama is very much of the moment. This is a truly transcendent, remarkable production.

Jason Contini, Sydney Frasure Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com Upstream Theater

Jason Contini, Sydney Frasure
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater’s production of The Glass Menagerie is being presented at the Kranzberg Arts Center until May 15, 2016.

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