Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

Tennessee Williams was 33 when he wrote The Glass Menagerie, but he might have been much younger. The play suggests the first fruits of a literary life: deeply autobiographical material, including a narrator who shares Williams’ given name, Tom, and symbolism that’s almost laughably obvious. (The absent father is a telephone-company worker who “fell in love with long distance.”) In short, it’s an easy play to wreck, as fragile and fanciful as—well, go on, guess. Menagerie is in excellent hands with the Keegan Theatre, which honed this production in a five-venue tour of Ireland this summer before bringing it to the Clark Street Playhouse. And if today’s audience has been conditioned by decades of TV talk therapy to slap diagnoses onto the characters rather than merely empathize with them, it’s also come equipped with knowledge of Williams’ bio: Tortured offspring of a troubled marriage, with a mentally ill sister who was eventually lobotomized, he lived hard (and gay, in an era that imposed limited roles—campy or closeted—on his kind) and died stupidly (choking on a bottle cap). Director Brian Hemmingsen (whom I last saw bellowing “Stelllaaa!” in another Williams drama) subtly emphasizes elements of the wounded Wingfields’ story that often get lost. As per Williams’ script, the portrait of the Wingfield father, whom Tom describes as a fifth character in the play, looms over designer Richard Mancini’s homey St. Louis flat, a reminder of the dreams—and income—he stole when he abandoned his wife and children. But Hemmingsen has his characters, more than their setting, evoke the family’s tarnished but brave class consciousness—even Tom refers to the dingy fire escape as “the terrace” without a trace of sarcasm—and suggest the tyranny of the Great Depression over a young man yearning to break free of his controlling mother and needy sister. The deft, sincere interpretation of Williams’ febrile script makes the Wingfields into more than psychodrama paper dolls. Linda High’s Amanda is a bustling busybody, not a mere bitch, as much victim of the family’s hard circumstances as oppressor. True, she won’t even let her son eat without hectoring him, but her stubborn belief that her shy, physically weak daughter, Laura, will rescue the family by marrying some nice man with a good job makes her more pitiable than maddening. Susan Grevengoed fills the thankless role of Laura with charm, warmth, and a surprising fierceness; you believe her attempts to mother her dissolute brother as fully as you believe her inability to face a business-school class without throwing up all over the floor. Her lengthy scene with Jon Townson as a tall, hale gentleman caller leaves you holding your breath, wondering whether maybe this time it’ll end happily. Mark Rhea’s Tom is sometimes impenetrable, but that’s more Williams’ doing than Rhea’s; moving between narration and action, he is often called upon to recollect his torment, in Williams’ florid prose, rather than splashing it all over the stage. He and his fellow performers keep the action realistic from moment to moment, making Williams’ “memory play…dimly lighted…sentimental…not realistic” deeply human even at its most impossible. —Pamela Murray Winters