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Clear as Crystal

'The Glass Menagerie' shines at San Jose Stage Company

By Marianne Messina

QUITE FRANKLY, it's not unreasonable to approach productions of Tennessee Williams' Glass Menagerie with a certain amount of dread. Over the play's 60-year history, the more unlucky audiences have been subjected to a depressing parade of pathetic Lauras and Amandas. Laura, the hopeless wallflower with the pitiful glass collection, needs to be married off; her mother, Amanda, one step from a nervous breakdown, can barely hold it together to throw Laura a last-resort dinner party. From there, the mood of the play spirals down the theatrical drain.

But audiences who see The Glass Menagerie at San Jose Stage can consider themselves lucky. The instincts of director James Reese were dead on in casting the jaunty Maureen McVerry as Amanda. McVerry has created a woman who still very much has her charm—which is not a frill, but a functional code of operation. What McVerry makes us see is that it's the world around Amanda that doesn't function up to code. Amanda could still run a plantation household full of servants, but her St. Louis apartment is not a plantation, and as she puts it, "A fire escape landing's a poor excuse for a porch."

It's easy to see why Amanda's son, Tom (Randall King), cowers (and in worse moments simpers) when going against her and why Laura (a lovely Chloé Bronzan) has withered under her wing. Like the "most popular" types in high school, McVerry's Amanda rules by a kind of ruthless charisma. When she warns Laura not to end up like the spinsters of her day, "little birdlike women without any nest," we don't feel she's shrinking from the description, she's wielding it.

In a way, Amanda has the most in common with Laura's gentleman caller, Jim O'Connor (Bill Olsen), another charismatic, once-popular person now living a less than stellar life. Olsen gives this gentleman caller a contemporary feel; his charm is boyish not roguish. His hope for the future springs from anticipation, not determination. In this production, the scene in which Amanda entertains the gentleman caller (Williams should have let the poor chap get at least one good line in edgewise) underplays the woman-desperate-for-male-attention angle and plays up the woman who's been desperately out of her element. So as Amanda chats up O'Connor we get a glimpse of a woman thrilled to be doing what she does best: creating, packaging and marketing romance.

These refreshing insights are only possible because this production's light touch to Williams' heavy-handed material allows us some emotional space to reflect and savor. Tom/King intermittently cues a violin (Timothy Kovatch seated in an offstage corner) to create a light, lonely musical context for scenes ("In memory, everything seems to happen to music"). During the scene where Jim O'Connor, as if just discovering the mysteries of life himself, shares his "advice" with Laura (graceful as glass figurines in spite of her limp), we believe him: that Laura only needs a good kick-start of confidence, and she'll be fine. This makes the play's final eruption all the more excruciating.

Williams' density—in words, characters, settings—can really throw a production off, but Reese's instinct for pulling back and making space holds Williams to his best. The set (Ching-Yi Wei and San Jose Repertory Studios) manages to create or represent a dance hall, an alleyway, a fire escape, a pier and several rooms of a home without creating an obstacle course. Cued by a foghorn or his passing through a doorway, King makes easy work of the shifts from character to narrator. He also nails the final speech with a subtlety that makes it easy to forget we're hearing poetry ("like bits of shattered rainbow"). This Tom comes to us as a man in a kind of daze, wondering out loud about something ineffable that has slipped away, leaving us in our own reflections.

The Glass Menagerie, a San Jose Stage Company production, plays Wednesday­Thursday at 7:3pm, Friday­Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through Oct. 24 at the Stage, 490 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $20­$42. (408.283.7142)

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From the October 6-12, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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