The Glass Menagerie; Culbreth Theater; Through October 16

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Astronomers recently discovered a small solar system that could support life some 20 light years away from earth. I wonder if, in the glare of their own sun, some distant, sentient creatures are also flummoxed by loneliness and failure. In UVA’s impressive production of The Glass Menagerie, these possibilities come to mind. Below a dusky cyclorama sits the silhouetted skyline, peppered with little lighted windows. Within each of those windows on the horizon, a tragic scenario is being played out. I thought I’d grown numb to Menagerie over the years, yet here it is, with fresh sparks.

Daria Okugawa’s Amanda is the epicenter, ignited with confidence and refreshing flirtatiousness. It’s a fully-wrought creation. Amanda’s final reaction to Tom—the raisonneur who guides us through the story—when he’s “going to see a movie” again could be played with command or with resignation. Okugawa doesn’t give us such a convenient answer. She never forces herself upon the character; effortlessly discovering a gem of a performance. She simply finds true moments to play as they occur. And isn’t that the mark of the craft?

The boyishly handsome Alex Grubbs works adeptly on Tom’s journey of frustrating dreams. Lesser actors seize upon Tom’s nascent homosexuality or his unforgivable decision to flee. It’s a tough cipher that Grubbs navigates amicably, with only his epilogue indicating clunkiness. Grubbs and Okugawa possess rich strength. Their scenes together are scrumptious.

Jacquie Walters, as Laura, and Geoff Culbertson, as Jim O’Conner, have a big script problem to deal with. The entire second act is carried by two characters who are superficial in the first act. Jim, the “gentleman caller,” is mentioned only briefly in the first half of the play while Laura, the limping shut-in, haunts the darker corners of the apartment. For a canonical script that is perfect by any other standard, what odd plotting. Walters is slow to warm. Her first reaction to the suitor, an old high school crush, appears to be more appendicitis than nervousness. But, Culbertson sweetly coaxes and Walters coyly follows, obeying the story with patience. 

Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s scenery design is exactly what the play requires: a dilapidated but earnest apartment buried by buildings and fire escapes. The walls have been stripped away, leaving a few errant windows and doors in a style of deconstruction that is typical of theatrical Realism these days; it is only the set designer who adds abstraction anymore. Luckily, the result is a dead-on score here. Too, the sound design is glorious. Instead of thunder claps, we get low rumbles. Instead of pervasive jazz, we get muffled hints of music. Nice.

There is an annoyance I should mention: a few moments when a nebbish goon from the running crew appears onstage to fetch Tom’s coat. There he is, in the world of the play. It breaks the spell something fierce. As a service to the strong work of the cast and designers: Please nix the smirking techie.

Minus this one point, director Richard Warner has concocted a stellar production.

 

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