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The specter of recent Tony winners may linger over shows like Wicked, but actors in classics are just as likely to face ghosts in the mind of a beholder. I am probably not the only theatergoer in this town whose first Tom in The Glass Menagerie was Robert Sean Leonard. I was 18, and my father dropped me off at Baltimore’s Centerstage on a December Saturday. I went because I loved Swing Kids, Dead Poets Society, and Branagh’s Much Ado; I came away loving Tennessee Williams’ play.
I’ve since watched at least two other quartets play the Wingfield family and the gentleman caller. I’ve seen a disabled actress and a college roommate who was obsessed with Riven play Laura. Both performances were affecting. Maybe it’s because of my memory, but it’s also because of interesting acting that, sitting in Arena Stage’s Kogod Cradle, I was most drawn to Sarah Marshall’s Amanda Wingfield and Michael Mitchell’s Jim O’Connor.
Marshall, an area veteran at Arena and Woolly Mammoth, anchors this cast that is otherwise recent Georgetown University alumni. Derek Goldman directs a production that’s a worthwhile collaboration between the theater and the university, both for its artistic merits and as another example of Arena Stage sharing its new space with area arts organizations.
In many Menageries, Amanda is portrayed as domineering and delusional, resting on her mountain laurels after a privileged Southern upbringing. Not here. She still talks of cotillions even though she’s now living in a shabby Depression-era apartment with her two grown children, but Marshall has chosen to play Amanda as perfectly lucid. She’s a nervous biddy who makes poor choices because she’s incredibly insecure. When she sells a magazine subscription over the telephone, she tears up in disbelief, and she’s clearly more embarrassed that her husband left her than by his profession: She married a “long distance” telephone man rather than the son of a plantation owner.
This Amanda is much easier to empathize with and seems sincerely interested in happiness for her daughter Laura (a lovely Rachel Caywood) than herself. When Tom (Clark Young, more a wanderer than a writer) invites a pal over to dinner, we get another character revelation, though one not quite as well embodied.
That’s OK. Mitchell is young. He’s more believable as a recent Georgetown graduate from suburban New York than he is as a middle-American Irish-Catholic. Yet his swingin’ prep-school persona works, given that he was Laura’s high school crush. When kisses her, then admits he’s engaged after pulling away, rejection is what pushes her from inferiority toward insanity. Tom soon follows Jim out the door, putting on his Merchant Marine coat and leaving his sister in the dark. “Blow out your candles, Laura, and so goodbye,” is the closing line, but only until another revealing Menagerie comes along.