By Martin F. Kohn
The first time I saw “The Glass Menagerie” I was 20 years old and it was a play about a smart, wisecracking young man and his mother who was too much in his business. In the morning she’d say “Rise and shine” and he’d respond with “I’ll rise, but I won’t shine.” He also had a sister who walked with a limp.
The next time I saw it, I can’t recall how old I was, it was a play about a brother and sister who really got each other and would exchange eye-rolls whenever their mother would start one of those stories about her days as a Southern belle with 17 gentleman callers competing for her affection.
A time or two after that, it was a play about a mother living in genteel poverty and worrying about the precarious future of her two adult children as they all face the hard times of the 1930s.
Tennessee Williams wasn’t kidding when he invoked magic – “I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve” – to begin his most autobiographical play.
There is magic, too, in Tim Rhoze’s new production at Performance Network. Taking advantage of the leeway -“unusual freedom of convention,” Williams called it – that the playwright granted directors of “The Glass Menagerie,” Rhoze has a violinist (Emily Slomovits), offstage but visible, playing background (sometimes foreground) music. He has added some subtle but meaningful gestures best left for future playgoers to discover, and Rhoze makes liberal use of projected images and a fluid approach to props: There is a phonograph, but no record; a picture frame but no picture…
All of this enhances, embellishes – or occasionally impedes – the proceedings and intensifies the idea that this is a memory play, and memories are not an unblemished fabric but one with rips and snags.
None of this would matter much without the most important thing Rhoze brings to the table: whole-hearted performances by four actors who appear to have spent a lot of time getting to know the play.
Kevin Young, as narrator and son Tom (Williams’ real first name) Wingfield, conveys innate good nature and the frustration of an artist stuck in a warehouse job facing the daily struggle between responsibility and his own dreams.
Tom’s dreams are of the future. His mother Amanda’s dreams are of the past. With grace, Carla Milarch navigates that and Amanda’s present state, that of a loving mother trying too hard to hold on to one child, Tom, the family breadwinner, and to let go of fragile, pathologically shy daughter Laura by finding her a suitor, a gentleman caller, who would take care of her.
The third in this family of dreamers is Laura, played by Emily Caffery. Laura lives the present as if it’s a dream, absorbed in her collection of glass animal and not much else. There is more to her, a personality as easily shattered as her fragile little creatures, and Caffery carefully lets out Laura’s underlying vivacity when Tom at last brings home a friend from the warehouse, the long sought-after gentleman caller.
Jim, played by Sebastian Gerstner, is another kind of dreamer, the practical kind. A star-everything in high school, he hit a rough spot somewhere but he’s going to night school, studying public speaking and electronics; he believes there’s a future in television (obvious in hindsight, but not bad for a play written in 1944 about characters in the 1930s). Jim is a smaller, but crucial, role, easy to misplay as a platitudinous future member of the stuffed shirts of America, but Gerstner steers clear of that.
At once dreamlike and harshly realistic, musical in language, memorable in character, “The Glass Menagerie” endures, and Performance Network’s production gives it the breath of life.
‘The Glass Menagerie’
Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. Thursday-Sunday through Oct. 28. $25-41. 734-663-0696. http://www.PerformanceNetwork.org