The Glass Menagerie

Jungle Theater

POOR LAURA WINGFIELD. Twenty-four years old and never been kissed, meek on the inside, mousy on the out, so scared of studying typing at the Rubicam Business College that it interferes with her digestion. She wanders St. Louis in the daytime, from the penguin house to the greenhouse, and rides the Victrola and its warbling 78s at night, communing only with her inanimate animal friends in a glass menagerie. In the long parade of Tennessee Williams's female misfits--hysterics, neurasthenics, Christian martyrs, wanton febriles, spinsters or spinsters-in-training--Laura Wingfield has always struck me as the most sympathetic. Poor, poor Laura.

Having sat through Williams parades and charades over the years, I'd reached the conclusion that even the playwright's artistic acmes could double as nadirs of self-parody. With his luridly unstable women and his emotionally brutish men, Williams could locate real human pathos while simultaneously stinking up the theater with hyperbolic Southern discomfort. Frankly, I believed The Glass Menagerie--if deservedly a classic--could play as comedy just as easily as tragedy. Until now.

However I may be tempted, claiming that the Jungle Theater has taken the "ass" out of The Glass Menagerie would be too much to abide. But director Bain Boehlke and his talented cast do convey a buoyancy to this "memory play"'s soft-focus melancholy, one that lessens the uneasy weight an audience usually feels in the gut while listening to narrator Tom's unapologetic self-defense, or waiting for the hapless Wingfields to crash. While the production's musical accompaniment is spare, its emotional score is supple. Action on the shadowy stage emerges from behind sheer drawn curtains, or reflected in a dirty, oblique mirror. So too, the Jungle expounds on previously hidden themes and reveals faint intimations of normally absent conflicts and convergences.

And then the Gentleman Caller, the Gentlemen Caller! The one who will marry Laura, freeing mother Amanda from the telemarketing of smutty serialized fiction, and Tom (whose mannered drawl, as delivered by George Sutton, inexplicably reminds me of Casey Kasem) from his drudgery in the shoe warehouse. Oh, how Laura's mother Amanda fears the Gentleman Caller will never come calling; how Laura fears he will (Julia Tehven's able portrayal gives Laura a certain deer-in-headlights skittishness about nearly everything). When the Caller finally arrives in the form of warehouse clerk Jim O'Connor, he is a fallen high-school hero who spouts off about self-confidence and the universality of being unique as if he'd just walked out of a Dale Carnegie seminar. Jim diagnoses Laura's problems and flirts like a fool; his unmentioned fiancée and Laura's obvious frailty are no deterrence. "Look how big my shadow is when I stretch," he says. As giftedly played by Timothy Kuhlmann, that is what Jim is--a shadow convinced he can, with optimism and hard work, become a bigger shadow.

There have been many distinguished Amanda Wingfields before, and there will be many in the future. But Barbara Kingsley's charmed performance is one worth remembering. She torments her brood, berating listless Tom for occupying a film 'n' liquor fantasy-world, while sadistically recounting her mythic afternoon filled with 17 gentlemen callers to an agonizingly introverted Laura. She is loathsome and then briefly pitiable, and then, when it seems impossible, even more loathsome. Kingsley's line readings are inspired--especially the way she sighs "it wasn't really anything at all," after Jim extends thanks
for dinner while absconding with Amanda's crassly contrived dreams.

Whether familiar with the play or not, the audience spends the better part of the evening dreading the moment when one of the glass figurines will be broken (only Nabokov, in Pnin, would be coy enough to proffer a breakable keepsake and then leave it fortuitously intact). And yet when the inevitable happens, the play does not groan to a miserable halt. Laura's glass unicorn, her oldest and favorite friend, loses only its horn. It has become like the rest of the horses in the menagerie, she says, and presents it to Jim. And while Laura has not only lost something (the allusion to unicorns and virgins is probably apropos) but also sacrificed it to a boob for no lasting gain, she has also experienced a distant intimacy for the first and possibly last time, and that is not all bad.

After playing to chronically sold-out houses, The Jungle Theater will soon be moving around the corner to roomier digs in the building that housed Knickers, a bar noteworthy before closing for its arcane funk music, breakfast specials, and periodic stabbings. The company is to be congratulated for discovering a steady audience for its purist renditions of a familiar 20th century canon. With successes like The Glass Menagerie, the Jungle can expect to avoid any critical stabbings in the future. CP

The Glass Menagerie runs through February 25; call 822-7063 for ticket and showtime information.

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