As the theater goes dark at the beginning of The Glass Menagerie, the character Tom Wingfield steps out onstage. In a pool of light, he addresses the audience, explaining that this is a memory play, woven from his past. It's the opposite of a magic show, he says: It creates truth with the appearance of illusion.
The Glass Menagerie, now being staged by Arizona Theatre Company, is a classic of American drama. Premiering in 1944, it was the first big success for playwright Tennessee Williams (1911-1983).
It's had countless productions, and has been read in endless high school English classes. The challenge for director Juliette Carrillo is to breathe life into this well-worn work, to make us see it with new eyes. And at first, she does.
At Tom's command, the curtain pulls back to reveal not the shabby Wingfield apartment where the story is set, but a vast, empty stage. As he continues his opening soliloquy—introducing the characters, providing context—the rest of the cast appears, marking the position of walls and stairs with chalk on the floor.
At the performance I attended, two women next to me whispered their disappointment at such a plain set and the lack of spectacle. But an empty stage can be a magic box that crackles with potential. Theater, at its core, is an act of shared imagination, and an empty stage strips away any pretense of realism.
What Carrillo has done is take Tom at his word; by making the stage bare, she's exposed the illusion for what it is. It's a surprisingly fresh approach to the Wingfield family, full of people unable to see past their illusions to the reality around them.
Tom (Noel Joseph Allain), our narrator, works in a dead-end warehouse job to support his mother and sister, while constantly dreaming of escape—through writing, through movies, through starting a new life. His mother, Amanda Wingfield (Catalina Maynard), clings to the memory of her genteel Southern upbringing, and the days when she would entertain streams of gentlemen callers. Tom's sister, Laura (Barbra Wengerd), crippled and perhaps mentally unstable, seeks only the comforts of her-glass animal collection and her records.
Amanda, perhaps fearing that Tom will abandon her as his father did, sees in Laura her only hope for a comfortable future. After failing to set her daughter up in a secretarial career, she sees marriage as Laura's only option. Tom, at his mother's bidding, invites a friend from the warehouse to dinner. Both mother and daughter see this gentleman caller (Brian Ibsen) as the man of their dreams, and when he leaves, their hopes seem to disappear with him. It's a wisp of a plot wrapped in thick layers of Southern gothic, and ripe characterization.
Maynard is an unstoppable force as the Wingfield matriarch, a whirlwind with a Southern drawl. She wields great control over her children, yet has no defenses against the outside world. She talks in a constant stream, as if her volubility had the power to make her words come true.
After a lifetime of this onslaught, Laura uses language as a last resort. Wengerd creates a compelling physical vocabulary for her character; Laura's quivering fingers seem to read unseen messages in the air. The highlight is her scene alone with the gentleman caller, when her thoughts and longing are written so clearly on her face and in her body.
As the oblivious suitor, Ibsen brings a breath of fresh air into the cloistered Wingfield home. Like everyone else, Ibsen suffers from a kind of egocentric blindness, but he has a boyish charm that makes his unconscious cruelty almost forgivable.
As Tom, Allain gives the least satisfying performance. His Tom is aloof and invulnerable, and while his words tell us he is haunted by his past, his manner suggests otherwise.
Carrillo uses her bare stage as a platform on which to construct these characters' fantasies, literally. Scene by scene, set designer Darcy Scanlin brings new pieces of the Wingfields' world to the stage, filling in the chalk lines with stairs, walls and doorways. Costume designer Emily Pepper follows suit, shifting her characters from basic black to full-colored textured finery for the dinner party.
The beautiful lighting, by Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz, is integral to some of the most magical moments in the show: the swirling colors of the characters' fantasies, the shifting shadows of a fight between mother and son, the eerie stillness in the dining room as Laura loses herself in her glass animals.
These moments are magical, because they are so theatrical: They present stylized symbols that our imaginations translate into deeper meanings. And this leads us to the production's tragic flaw: Carrillo uses the elements of theater in a way that ultimately works against theater's emotional potential.
In the bare-bones opening, a wooden chair is all we need to picture a seedy apartment. It's a brilliant concept, but Carrillo lessens its impact when she asks her actors to break character to read stage directions to begin and end the scenes. In effect, she keeps us at arm's length, forcibly reminding us that we are watching a text in performance.
As the stage directions are gradually eliminated, the components of the set begin to be brought in, disrupting the simplicity of the earlier bare stage. While the fuller set probably meets the audience's expectations, it puts trimming on a story that was fine without it. And the richly colored walls of the more elaborate set pale in comparison to the magical play of lights on the bare stage.
It's only at the end of the play, when the walls are stripped away again as the characters' fantasies shatter, that the reason for the accumulating set becomes clear. The shift confronts us with the contrivance of stagecraft, bringing us back to Tom's prologue—presenting truth in the form of illusion.
The effect is surprising and illuminating. But the realization touches the mind, while leaving the heart virtually untouched. What moves the heart is the simple humanity at the core of the story—the danger of exposing our fragile dreams to the harsh reality of life.