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Sunday, November 4, 2012 - Page updated at 05:30 a.m.

Theater review
A strident, ghostly revival of 'Glass Menagerie' at Seattle Rep

By Misha Berson
Seattle Times theater critic


Amanda Wingfield is one difficult stage mother.

In the breakthrough Tennessee Williams play "The Glass Menagerie," she frets, she motormouths, she complains, she manipulates, she nags, nags, nags her weary adult children until they want to strangle — or abandon — her.

Every staging of the 1944 classic faces a dilemma: How do you solve a problem like the indomitable former Southern belle Amanda? And stir compassion for her Depression-era desperation and curdled Old South nostalgia? How to convey her monstrousness, without making her a monster?

The offbeat new Seattle Repertory Theatre staging of "Glass Menagerie," directed by Braden Abraham, struggles but often misses that balance — even though Suzanne Bouchard, who plays Amanda, gives her all to it.

Bouchard is one of Seattle's most treasured actors, with a skill set honed by many stellar performances. As Amanda, her voice rises like mercury from a coquettish coo to a sardonic rasp to a full-boil shriek.

Her Amanda looks drab and worn, as she wrestles with poverty and despair. But (aided by costume designer Frances Kenny) she's aglow and youthful when her son Tom (Ben Huber) brings home a Gentleman Caller (Eric Riedmann) as part of Amanda's deluded scheme to find a caretaker-mate for her fragile daughter Laura (Brenda Joyner).

But Amanda's shrewishness is pushed to extremes here, to an extent that should send Huber's sulky, restless Tom packing off to the Merchant Marine much earlier than the script does.

Her rage can feel showy and ungrounded within the arid, minimalist St. Louis parlor designed by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams, and the otherwise cool, semidetached tone of Abraham's first act.

And in too many instances, deliberately or not, this interpretation makes Amanda so transparently ridiculous she's a laugh magnet.

Many a director wants to find a new way into Williams' familiar but tricky mother lode of humor, pathos and near-mystical regret. But Abraham's route wobbles between the strident and the gauzy.

With filmy drapes that mark off the Wingfields' Spartan living room and dark shadows looming in L.B. Morse's lighting scheme, the ghostly aspect of Williams' roman à clef memory play is emphasized.

As Tom conjures his lost relations for us, it's an interesting conceit to view them as phantoms. Even the (scripted) photograph of the father/husband who "fell in love with long distances" and ditched this family is enshrouded in chiffon.

But "Glass Menagerie" has guts and blood lines too. And it isn't until the superior Act 2 arrives that Amanda and her children seem related to one another, and inextricably bound by love, guilt and repulsion.

Credit Williams for writing one of the most awkward yet entrancing love scenes ever, and Joyner and Riedmann for playing it astutely.

You can see how Riedmann's gum-snapping, hearty but unfulfilled Jim charms the pathologically shy Laura as a matter of habit. But he also tenderly unmasks her acute insecurity, and untapped loveliness.

Joyner's awakening, under his admiring gaze, is also believable and very touching. Though she doesn't win the man, it's as if a light switch has clicked on in her heart.

Huber is most affecting delivering Tom's acerbic narrative monologues. They tie the plight of the Wingfields to a larger American malaise, during a soul-depleting and impoverishing economic plunge worse than our current one.

(Note: Many cigarettes are smoked in the show. They're tobacco-free, but may still bother sensitive noses.)

Misha Berson:

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