Amanda Wingfield is in the house.
She’s a frequent visitor to Theater Land, one of Tennessee Williams’ greatest creations, a faded Southern belle and a desperate mother trying to retain her last shreds of dignity as her two beloved adult children sputter along. Portrayed in the classic Williams work “The Glass Menagerie” by some of the world’s greatest actresses (and some, especially on the community theater side, who were in a little over their heads), Amanda is an irresistibly tragic character, one of those meaty roles impossible to pass up.
But look: This Amanda, played by Amelia Ryan in the superb Good Company Players production at the 2nd Space Theatre, is different than most. There’s no Southern Gothic larger-than-life histrionics here. No scenery-chewing, woe-is-me, clutch-my-throat swagger. Not an ounce of ham.
Instead, Ryan – directed with consummate skill by J. Daniel Herring and joined by an excellent ensemble cast – gives us moderation: quiet suffering, restrained dignity, muffled desperation.
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Some of the strongest moments in the production are the silences. Such a moment comes after Amanda learns that her daughter, Laura (Alyssa Gaynor), has been skipping out on the business school courses she’s supposedly been attending. There is drama here: “Deception!” Amanda hisses. But the glaring silence before and after the word, as big and yawning as a major sinkhole, impacts the most.
Yet there’s also a lively sparkle to Ryan’s Amanda, a slightly manic but never over-the-top giddiness, that reminds us just how delightful Amanda might have been at a party in her youth. This is one of Ryan’s greatest performances, ranking up there with her portrayal of Margaret in StageWorks Fresno’s “A Light in the Piazza” in 2011. It’s just exquisite.
Our own memories skip and start, filling in blanks, flitting by minutes and years, and Herring’s staging bolsters the idea of Williams’ work as a ‘memory play’ in a visual way.
Herring gives a freshness and subtlety to this “Menagerie,” the best thing I’ve seen at 2nd Space in a while. His staging is distinctive, at times using what you might call a “freeze frame” staging. As Amanda and Laura talk, for example, her son, Tom (Steven Weatherbee) and his friend, Jim (Patrick Regal), the much anticipated “Gentleman Caller,” progress slowly in the background through David Pierce’s stylized set, stopping every few moments in an extended freeze or moving tableau.
The effect adds to the idea of “Glass Menagerie” as a dabble in time. Our own memories skip and start, filling in blanks, flitting by minutes and years, and Herring’s staging bolsters the idea of Williams’ work as a “memory play” in a visual way.
Each of the other three actors is strong, reinforcing the play’s gentle and graceful restraint. Gaynor offers an aching performance as Laura, whose precious collection of glass animals is one of her few outlets of expression. (The moment late in the play when her character absorbs an emotional jolt is truly striking; it’s as if you’re watching Gaynor wilt before your eyes.)
Weatherbee’s Tom is hauntingly detached, almost a shade of a man, befitting his desire to get out of his dead-end warehouse job and away from his suffocating family. (My one quibble is that I think his opening and closing monologues are so restrained that they are almost too understated.)
And Patrick Regal, as the Gentleman Caller, offers an intriguing, buoyant performance laced with self-doubt. (He does have a tendency to rush some of his lines.)
Marie Kramer’s period costumes nicely match the tenor of the production. (Even Amanda’s party dress, while gaudy, still manages to feel “real.”) Evan Commins’ lighting design, from the soft red glow shining up through fire escape grates to the dusky, memory-focused treatment of the characters, helps establish the mood.
Most important is Herring’s direction. He guides this carefully crafted production from start to finish with a tender and astute interpretation of a show that many of us have seen before. But don’t hesitate to see this one again. Better yet, if you’ve never seen it, make an effort. This show deserves full houses and enthusiastic audiences.
From Ryan’s memorable performance to the bracing impact of Williams’ text, this “Glass Menagerie” will become a memory you won’t soon forget.
The Glass Menagerie
- Through April 17
- 2nd Space Theatre, 928 E. Olive Ave.
- www.gcplayers.com, 559-266-0660
- $20, $17 students and seniors