(Charles Kruger)

This reviewer is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

“The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams, produced by Marin Theatre Company. Director: Jasson Minadakis. Scenic Designer: Kat Conley. Lighting Designer: Ben Wilhelm. Costume Designer: Jacqueline Firkins. Composer & Sound Designer: Chris Houston. Dialect Coach: Lynne Sofer. Properties: Seren Helday.

Tom: Nicholas Pelczar. Amanda: Sherman Fracher. Laura: Anna Bullard. Jim: Craig Marker.

Musician: Andrew Wilke, Trumpet

Like anyone else who has studied the American theatre of the 20th century, I have been exposed many times to Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece, “The Glass Menagerie.” As a high school and college drama student, I studied and played many of the scenes in class. As a graduate acting student, I heard many times of Laurette Taylor‘s legendary perfection in the role of Amanda. Over the years I’ve seen half a dozen professional productions and perhaps as many student and community renditions, not to mention countless excerpts performed in workshops.

It says worlds that watching the brilliant new production at Marin Theatre Company, I felt as if I were seeing it for the first time and discovered subtleties of thought, language and character I have not noticed before.  Director Jasson Minadakis and his team of designers and wonderful ensemble have created something quite thrilling.

In interviews about this production, director Minadakis has correctly noted that Mr. Williams’ plays, with their surrealistic poetry, have not always been best-served by the tradition of strictly realistic productions.  He consciously set out reimagining the play in a more abstract fashion, stressing its poetry and its character as a memory play in which everything is somewhat dream like. This conception has been marvelously realized.

Kat Conley‘s abstract set of fire escapes and metal scaffolding, an apartment absent walls, and furniture of minimal metal construction (beautifully lit by Ben Wilhelm) instantly establishes that this is not a realistic production. At first glance, I was puzzled by this approach, expecting to see touches of Amanda’s famous genteel poverty. Having the actors mime all the props—even their food—brilliantly solved that problem. They have to rely entirely upon their imaginations and strength of will to make this environment bearable.

Tom (Nicholas Pelczar) and Amanda (Sherman Fracher) in Marin Theatre Company's Production of "The Glass Menagerie". Photo Credit: Alessandra Mello

With the absence of distractions, and an abstract approach that compels the audience to maintain a heightened level of alertness, the language in this production emerges with great clarity. Large themes about the nature of theatre, the impact of the Great Depression, and the plight of factory workers are given their appropriate weight, anchoring the play firmly in the American Century, as it should be.

Tennessee Williams often remarked (only half-kidding) that he considered all of his plays to be comedies. In this production, the cast and director have wonderfully mined the comic elements and the evening is full of laughter.

The performances are superb. Sherman Fracher’s Amanda, fading but still beautiful in mid life, is both monstrous and lovable. Her care and deep respect for her children are clearly evident. This is no caricature (as she is too often played), but a fully realized, complex character with good and bad qualities and a deep well of past experience. When she shows off her party dress (kudos to costumer Jacqueline Firkins) in preparation for The Gentleman Caller, she is odd and quite comical but by no means grotesque. Her beauty and charm come through with great clarity. This contrasts with a recently seen Bay area “Amanda” by a famous and much-admired actress who played the same moment as though she were Carol Burnett spoofing “Gone With The Wind.” Enough said there. The point is this part is full of potential pitfalls that Ms. Fracher has successfully avoided.

Anna Bullard‘s Laura is revelatory. Rather than the usual pathetic mouse, we have here a Laura who is full of intelligence and compassionate love for her brother and mother. To a part that can easily be merely pitiful, Ms. Bullard brings dignity, strength and a quiet humor.

Nicholas Pelczar does an excellent job in portraying Tom’s ambivalent feelings about his overwhelming, controlling yet still loving and perceptive mother. He is particularly good at finding the comedy in Tom’s efforts to appease her.

Craig Marker‘s Jim (The Gentleman Caller) is fully fleshed out, revealing a man who is self centered and kind, foolish and decent, egoistical and insecure. It is fine work.

In an interesting and successful innovation, director Minadakis has included a musician onstage who accompanies the action on the trumpet. This musician is understood to be the missing father of the family who, in the original stage directions, is represented by a portrait that dominates the apartment. Minadakis’ innovation is consistent with Williams’ conception of the play (for which music was always an integral element) and I think we can safely assume he would have been delighted. Andre Wilke’s musicianship is a pleasure throughout, as is his silent body language that suggests a good deal of the father’s character.

Overall, this is a remarkably good production of which Marin Theatre Company can be justly proud. Very highly recommended.

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