The Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company's experimental production of "The Glass Menagerie" is one of the great Chicago storefront re-interpretations of a classic, really just as unstinting, innovative and revealing as David Cromer's "Our Town," or any other of the few but unforgettable Chicago nights of my life I've witnessed Shattered Globe or Circle or some other half-forgotten or nomadic group make the veins in a play by Arthur Miller, Eugene O'Neill or Tennessee Williams run with fresh blood.
After selling out its entire run in a flash at Mary-Arrchie last winter — turning hundreds of people away — and then losing some of its crucial cast members to other productions, Hans Fleischmann's exquisitely beautiful show has now been remounted in a large and somewhat more challenging space at Theater Wit, replete with the entire original cast of Joanne Dubach, Walter Briggs, Maggie Cain and Fleischmann himself, playing the role of the narrator, Tom.
My feelings on seeing the show Friday night (after first reviewing it last December) were not so different, really, from the experience of watching the musical "Once" move to Broadway from the New York Theatre Workshop a year or so ago. Certainly, the new space lacks the intimacy of the old, and in the case of this very grungy "Menagerie," the relative cleanliness and comfort of Theatre Wit means that the style of the show and the venue are not as perfectly matched. But this is a piece of art that stands atop the twin theatrical rocks of spontaneous life and conceptual surety, and, in many crucial places, the connections within the work have only cured and deepened.
Williams' poetry, which Fleischmann now spills out like a man who just cannot hold it in, even to assuage his own pain, seemed to dance on the early-summer air Friday night. It felt like old Tennessee was talking again to the town that first embraced his play, consciously offering a window into the pain of previous generations of lonely individualists: Here was a kind of cry forward to our world, which, for all its confounding problems, at least allows individuals who do not conform to the norm more space to pursue their own definition of happiness. Thank God, I sat there thinking.
Fleischmann has taken Williams' assertion that this is a memory play at face value, simultaneously showing us Tom's fate, long after Amanda and Laura have faded away, and his role in shaping their lives in ways he did not intend but could not prevent. By knowing from the start what happened to Tom, these shadows seem so much more resonant. It's as if Tom were condemned to repeat, in Sisyphean style, the night of the fateful coming of the Gentleman Caller. And so what happens to the audience member is that you spiral back to your own similar regrets, your own selfish moments when you could have changed something for someone but did not, or could not, do any good. We all have had encounters wherein, after the fact, we wish we had become more involved. To a large extent, this production is about that feeling.
The famous scene with Laura (Dubach) and her Gentleman Caller (Briggs) — even better than before — is nothing short of a revelation. That's because Flesichmann and these two very fine young Chicago actors clearly realized that most productions understand only Laura's vulnerability, even though her visitor is actually the one who is landing in the more horrendous life trap of boring job and conventional lover despite an all-too-brief flowering of potential. It's as potent a few minutes as you can see on any Chicago stage at this moment, at any moment.
Two of those blind Americans whom Williams was always identifying and describing dance their sad little dance in a world of glass and light and music, created by Fleischmann, his composer Daniel Knox (whom I unforgivably failed to sufficiently acknowledge in my first review of this production) and his gifted designer Grant Sabin. And when the unicorn loses his horn, your hand goes to your own nose.
When: Through June 30
Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $37 at 773-975-8150 or theaterwit.orgCopyright © 2015, RedEye