• Christian Durso as Tom and Katherine James as Amanda in "The Glass Menagerie" at the Sierra Madre Playhouse (Photo - Gina Long).

      Christian Durso as Tom and Katherine James as Amanda in “The Glass Menagerie” at the Sierra Madre Playhouse (Photo – Gina Long).

      Tennessee Williams presents a challenge to sunny southern California. We are the land of possibility, of escaping the shackles of our birth, and fulfilling our potential. We give awards for showing up.

      By Melanie Hooks

      Thus, here of all places, manifesting the claustrophobic atmosphere that pervades Williams’s breakthrough work The Glass Menagerie, rife with economic and personal chains, is no small feat.  Sierra Madre Playhouse does so, solidly and well. Lead Christian Durso, playing Tom, Williams’s autobiographical stand-in, glowers from the fire-escape set as soon as the audience enters, fifteen minutes before the start – a dare to not take his suffering to heart. Perhaps a little over-the-top, but understandable given the glorious, blooming spring audiences have just left at the door.

      Tom’s familiar story, of a young man with dreams larger than his small life, provides the backbone of the narrative, but as great works do, Menagerie lingers in the humanity of the specific cost to one heart. As it happens, Tom’s choice is between breaking his own heart or two others – his handicapped sister’s and worried mother’s. If he stays, these two women, dependent on his shoe-factory job earnings, will survive 1936 St. Louis. But leaving is the only path to a full life, to write and to ‘adventure,’ as he puts it.

      (L -R) Katherine James as Amanda and Andrea Muller as Laura (Photo - Gina Long).

      (L -R) Katherine James as Amanda and Andrea Muller as Laura (Photo – Gina Long).

      Tom’s lack of any romantic attachments and one solitary reference to unfulfilled sexual longing are the only evidence Williams gave contemporary audiences of his own closeted homosexuality. But director Christian Lebano effectively isolates Tom time and again, more often watching the action from the side, sometimes literally through curtains of time. We never feel he has any possibility of love except that of the two women who remain resolutely center stage. Set Designer Erin Walley’s use of scrims and lace to layer the stage stretch the small space to its limits, but effectively so. At times the shadows thrown by isolating spots remind the audience too starkly for an intimate drama that this is theater, but Jonathan Beard’s excellent scoring throughout drew pleased whispers from the rows.

      All this said, the reason to care about this performance, the reason we care about Tom is clear – his mother. Katherine James inhabits Amanda Wingfield completely. So often poor, uneven accents and vaudeville-style mimicry cheapen Southern characters when played by those outside the region. James’s online biography reveals her hometown is Chicago. But she nails the patois and mannerisms of a displaced Tennessee Valley housewife, allowing us to be as swallowed as she is by Amanda’s real terror – abandonment.

      Durso and sister Laura (Andrea Muller, in an earnest if stiff performance, plus one extraordinarily beautiful dance sequence) elicit true sibling love, but it is James’s Amanda whose tyrannical fear infuses their every exchange with fragility. Who can survive a Southern mother bent on worrying herself and all those around her to death? James, as many actresses before her have done, could transform Amanda into a shrill monster. Yet it is she who ultimately wins the war for the audience’s heart. James brings transparency to the nagging and bragging, never far from the naked love of her children and anxiety about their futures, especially daughter Laura’s.

      (L-R) Andrea Muller and Ross Philips (Photo - Gina Long).

      (L-R) Andrea Muller and Ross Philips (Photo – Gina Long).

      Paralyzed by social anxiety and a pronounced limp from childhood, Laura’s future holds little promise of economic independence. Amanda’s determination to marry Laura to a responsible man (Ross Philips on performance night in a great, braggadocio turn) who will prevent her slide into poverty and homelessness does not strike a modern ear as overwrought manipulation. In point of fact, James’s no-nonsense presentation of the probable future, doubtless shaped by Lebano’s direction, highlights the ongoing impact of sexism on both genders. Tom cannot live his dreams because Laura and Amanda have no other choice than to depend on him. They cannot find work that pays them a living wage. Amanda tries; she sells magazine subscriptions on the phone and clearly has a mind that could pay well if given half an education. Her efforts to give a vocational one to her daughter backfire largely because of the economic pressure she feels and then transfers to Laura, who crumbles under the weight.

      In the end, this tale of a late Depression-era man becomes a relevant, modern warning about the dangers of inequality. What drags one of us down sinks us all.

      The Glass Menagerie
      • Written by Tennessee Williams
      • Directed by Christian Lebano
      • Produced by Estelle Campbell and Christian Lebano for Sierra Madre Playhouse.
      • Starring Christian Durso as Tom, Katherine James as Amanda, Andrea Muller as Laura, Ross Philips as Jim, and Jackson Kendall (Jim u/s).
      Sierra Madre Playhouse
      87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre, CA 91024

      (AAmple free parking behind theatre).
      • Through June 19, 2016.
      Fri. & Sat. at 8:00, Sun. at 2:30.
      Added Sunday evening performance on June 12 at 7:00; Added Saturday matinee on June 18 at 2:30. Dark on June 10 and 11.
      General admission: $17-30
      • Buy tickets here.

      Screenwriter and columnist Melanie Hooks has lived on both coasts and in Hawaii, as well as the Midwest and the United Kingdom. Someday she hopes to follow JK Rowling’s lead and buy a Scottish castle. Until then, find her discoveries here.

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