3:16 PM CST, December 23, 2012
To open up “The Glass Menagerie” in Chicago — whether you're in a second-floor walk-up or a downtown showcase — is to awaken the ghosts of history.
This city never supported a needier or worthier play. There's an excellent case to be made that without what happened at the Civic Theatre in 1944, when “The Glass Menagerie” premiered in Chicago, Tennessee Williams would not be Tennessee Williams as he now is known. So it is a high compliment to say that Hans Fleischmann's gorgeous little incarnation of this fragile drama — an auteur production that recalls David Cromer's famous take on “Our Town” in its beauty, attention to detail and unflinching honesty (not to mention Calixto Bieito's Goodman Theatre production of “Camino Real” in its fascination with the intensity of authorial memory) — is a worthy new entry in the long diary of interplay between the great dramatic poet Williams and this great theatrical city.
I've been climbing the stairs past the convenience store to the Mary-Arrchie Theatre for nearly 20 years; I've never seen a show there quite like this one. If the best-of-the-year lists were not already signed, sealed and delivered, I'd be ripping them into shreds. There are many readers of this newspaper, I know, who follow Williams interpretations in Chicago cautiously, closely and with expertise. Fleischmann's production — and the conceit of the show would be impossible without Grant Sabin's gorgeous collage of a setting — is not to be missed. Friday night, I was sitting in a section of mostly young people who, judging by their conversation, clearly had not seen this play before and knew little or nothing of its baggage. At the end of two hours, they were moved and enthralled.
So what exactly is Fleischmann, who also plays Tom, doing here? Well, he has made Amanda (Maggie Cain) and Laura (Joanne Dubach), explicitly, figures in Tom's memory. As Cromer did with Wilder's masterpiece, Fleischmann cultivates an intensely personal relationship with the audience, describing these personal shadows in such a way that he can join the story at times without ever making you feel like he has run back to the past. To put this another way, he gives the play a fatalistic theme; it is as if you are watching the psyche of a sensitive soul condemned to relive a crucial evening from his past, unable to escape its pull, even though he might wish things, and he, had turned out differently. Fleischmann — who sports a heavy beard and the look of a poet gone fatally to seed — is far from your usual Tom. You feel throughout like he is showing you what Tom has become, far from his beloved Laura, after nearly shattering her.
In this show, which costs little to see, Laura's glass menagerie is made up of shimmering, fragile, beautiful flasks, decanters, glasses, carafes and bottles — of liquor, we assume. The glassware is everywhere on the set, pulsing with light as if seen by a man who has imbibed too much and now is staring down the heebie-jeebies — even seeing the sister he loves as a face in the bottom of a glass. Amanda and Laura have a ghostly quality throughout. Sometimes they seem very present, sometimes they're off in the shadows of Tom's memory. But that does not stop Dubach, whose performance here is just extraordinary, from breaking your heart nonetheless.
Dubach — a beauty who variously put me in mind of Katie Holmes, Alexis Bledel and Judy Garland, if you'll pardon the eccentricity of that lineup — does not condescend to her character or, as is typical, wrap up her sensuality in her “defect.” Indeed, you almost think she'll find fulfillment with her Gentleman Caller, superbly played by a gutsy Walter Briggs as a deeply limited man who couldn't help but break this young woman in the end. Of course, she still wants him, and it's in the vicarious pain we feel for her rejection, coupled with a sense of relief that so extraordinarily sensitive a woman will not be so limited, that the power of the production lies.
Fleischmann makes clear — with truly astonishing vivacity — that the world has no way to hold or satisfy Tom, Amanda (a character whom Cain makes uncommonly sad and sympathetic) or Laura, all of whom are very similar, really, however it may seem on the surface. Only the Gentleman Caller, one of those lucky business types who does not examine life too closely, has a chance at happiness.
I can't think of a production of this play that laid out the reality that sensitive types suffer in America, a reality so in tune with what Williams was really all about, with such poignancy. I also can't think of another production that made it so clear that this is a show about a close-knit family, with family members who really love each other. It is an emotional time in America; this is a work of art that seems to understand.
The production uses the famous projections (here part of a video landscape designed by Anna Henson) that is deeply textured, and framed around Tom's apparent obsession with going to the movies. On a sheet on a rear wall, Tom unspools a kind of picture show of the mind, both revealing and running away from the live action that takes place in front. It is an exquisite piece of design (Matthew Gawryk lights this whole immersive world with great beauty and care). And while all that is working on your eyes, composer Daniel Knox, who has been working of late with Robert Wilson, takes over your ears with a deeply resonant original score that just envelopes every darn part of you.
At one point, Fleischmann has Dubach's Laura stand as if on the pedestal of memory — there's something about the way that image keys into the drama's melancholy and sense of loss and fragility that I can't quite get out of my head.
Through Jan. 20 at Mary-Arrchie Theatre, 735 W. Sheridan Road; running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes; tickets: $15-$25 at 773-871-0442 or maryarrchie.com
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