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The Vanishing

The Glass Menagerie is safe at Playhouse on the Square.

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There are lines in The Glass Menagerie that sound like they might have been written yesterday as a deliberate anti-venom for the disorder reigning throughout America's politics and economy. The frequently produced play sounds brand-new, especially in its earliest moments when Tom Wingfield — a dramatic doppelganger for playwright, Tennessee Williams — summons up visions from a time when "the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind."

"Their eyes had failed them or they had failed their eyes," Tom says. And, as a result of this colossal vision crisis, Americans were "having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy."

Elsewhere there was revolution, Tom says. Back home there was only shouting and confusion.

Williams' first hit premiered in Chicago in 1944 and has as much to say to audiences anticipating a Depression today as it did to WWII-era audiences revisiting "that quaint period of the 1930s."

Menagerie's director Miles Potter, a University of Memphis alum who now works and resides in Canada, has coaxed exceptional, energetic work from his actors. For the most part, he has delivered a glowing, emotionally honest, and painfully sympathetic vision of Williams' American grotesque that moves along at a comfortable pace without losing any of the play's dreamier qualities.

But for all of its charm, this Glass Menagerie isn't everything it could be. Despite its sentimental feints and bittersweet pretensions, it's a coolly modern piece of work and a little jagged around the edges. The script speaks of fragile things, but there's nothing remotely fragile about the script, which begs for a brasher, more self-conscious treatment than it usually gets.

"I have things in my pockets, tricks up my sleeves," barks Tom in his grim play-opening narration. The begrudgingly responsible son of his overbearing mother, Amanda, and brother to his shy, dependent sister, Laura, claims to be the opposite of a "stage magician." But that's a lie designed to facilitate the playwright's magic trick. Before the eyes of his audience and using nothing but words and gestures, Tom resurrects his troubled history and transforms it into something he can almost live with. At its core, The Glass Menagerie is nothing but an elaborate disappearing act performed by a reluctant but extremely gifted vaudevillian.

Michael Gravois' Tom is a serious and sincere creature doomed to write poems when he should be following the example of his absentee father, a telephone man "who fell in love with long distance." Gravois brings sincerity to an often insincere character in a play that takes the very notion of sincerity to task. He casts off a lot of his character's snarky, superior edge but still passes himself off as a bookish middle-aged precursor to James Dean's rebel without a cause.

After a ferocious turn as Martha in last season's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and her unhinged follow-up as Vivian Leigh in Orson's Shadow, it was only a matter of time before somebody cast Irene Crist as the profoundly needy Amanda Wingfield, a woman who could have married a rich planter but didn't. Crist doesn't disappoint.

DJ Hill plays Jim O'Connor, the gentleman caller and emissary from the "real world" as a self-motivating opportunist who falls in love with the way he looks in Laura's eyes.

In her first season at Playhouse, Amber Snyder brought loads of personality to a variety of chorus roles. In Menagerie's first act, her big personality is almost her undoing as it bubbles just under the soft-spoken surface of Laura, a character whose shyness is described in terms generally reserved for discussing the mentally challenged. She's too comfortable and maybe even a little too confident. In Act II, however, with Jim and candlelight thrust upon her, she comes together and falls apart in a thousand different ways.

The longer Williams wrote, the more he flirted with affected self-parody. Compared to the heavily ornamented language of later scripts, The Glass Menagerie is a study in directness and economy. Its latest arrival in Memphis couldn't be more on time.

Through October 26th

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