Jungle Theater's "Glass Menagerie" is a zoo of quiet horrors

A flickering flame: Wendy Lehr and Alayne Hopkins in "The Glass Menagerie"
A flickering flame: Wendy Lehr and Alayne Hopkins in "The Glass Menagerie"
by Michal Daniel

There are some works of art that tend to get thrown at us, if not too early, at least too early for us to understand their full resonance. You can read The Great Gatsby when you're 14, but you'll only grasp the contours of its themes of social striving, dissolution, and the cheap glitz of American wealth. The Glass Menagerie is another fine example; see it when you're young, and it's weird and compelling. Put a few years behind you, and it pounds you squarely between the eyes and leaves you wrung out like a spent dishtowel.

The canonical plays of Tennesee Williams are so strong, so specific, and so powerful that they leave performers little choice but to try to simply get things right. They don't leave a lot of room for reinterpretation, in other words, and everyone involved must be smart enough to simply grab onto their freight-train momentum and simply hold on for dear life. Director Bain Boehlke possesses this sort of intelligence in abundance, and his take on Menagerie is straightforward, purposeful, and clear-eyed. It does the job.

The drama takes place in the cramped Wingfield family apartment. There's overbearing faded Southern belle Amanda (Wendy Lehr) and her two children: the frustrated, thwarted Tom (Joshua James Campbell), and dreamy, weird, phobic daughter Laura (Alayne Hopkins). What follows is a battleground of fear and constriction. Amanda's life is fueled by her own bullshit, while Laura is aging into an unpleasant and lonely future. As for Tom, he dreams of escape (when not emotionally crippled by guilt over the repurcussions of what that flight would mean to his sister).

Lehr gives us Amanda as unbearable train wreck, while Hopkins's Laura is plausibly stunted, paralytically frightened, and lovely despite it all. Campbell does nice work with Williams's long asides to the audience, which contextualize the play and niftily frame the action as inherently dramatic as the tumult of this thing we call real life. The effect is akin to repeatedly pushing on an infected tooth: you know it's all wrong, but you can't stop doing it because the pain keeps coming back in so many fascinating varieties.

Michael Booth finally makes the scene as Jim, the gentleman caller--the one character who seems to live in the real world, with all its mundane textures (he claims to possess an extraordinary nature while spouting reasonably true homilies, and stands out as the only emotionally balanced character in the work). When Booth makes a hasty exit toward the end, the effect is crushing--Jim has dipped a toe in this hall of horrors, proclaimed it somewhat fixable, but hightailed it nonetheless.

I first encountered this play as a teen, and identified with Tom's sense of being trapped by family and wanting to explode onto the wider world with all its possibilities. As with any great work, its context changes each time I return to it. Now it seems a story of lives spent in quiet desperation, the unreeling of the years exposing unsolvable vulnerabilities and the sense of how we can waste our years living out the wrong stories. It's a terribly sad story, naked in its impossibility, exposing the raw destruction that can arise from love and connection.

At the Jungle, it's currently being done right. If you have an interest in seeing this great American drama done with credibility and honesty, as well as unapologetic directness, this is a ticket that will leave you appropriately spent, wrung, and hung out to dry.

The Glass Menagerie plays at the Jungle Theater through October 17. For tickets call 612.822.7063 or click here.

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