The Glass Menagerie
It’s easy for productions of Tennessee Williams’s classic drama of aging Southern belle Amanda’s fraught attempts to revive the prospects of her deadbeat son, Tom, and handicapped daughter, Laura, to get a little maudlin. Emphasize Laura’s limp, have Tom throw a dish: It’s not hard to cue the waterworks. Steppenwolf has avoided these sentimental pitfalls with a production that stresses every note of levity lying latent in the play: Tom and gentleman caller Jim trade bro-y banter scot-free of the standard hints of thwarted homoerotic desire. And Tom’s razor-sharp rants about his mother’s constant nagging occasionally veer into intentional goofiness.
These broad antics prove more than welcome in a Steppenwolf for Young Adults production so pared down it could easily lose itself on that company’s vast stage. In its best moments, the production’s jollity amplifies Williams’s script, acutely highlighting truly poignant moments that might otherwise drown in a sea of solemnity. Davis, as ultra-matron Amanda, hits the humorous notes with particular grace: Her side-splittingly frantic efforts to please a visiting suitor reveal the desperation underlying Amanda’s stern behavior elsewhere in the play. But the production’s buoyancy has drawbacks: Charismatic James T. Alfred never delves deep into the grave yearning driving Tom.
It speaks oodles to the production’s solid framework that the ostensibly audacious decision to feature an entirely African-American cast (that’s right) fades quickly from the audience’s mind. The lyrical feel of Williams’s “memory play” lets us forgive textual incongruities and welcome a fresh outlook on this iconic family. Williams wrote Menagerie as a portrait of working-class, American desperation; Steppenwolf’s production provides just that.