When a new theater announces its presence in the Triangle, it’s challenged to make a mark among the many. With its inaugural production, Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” Durham-based Bartlett Theater meets the challenge handily in an innovative staging of striking design and emotional impact.
The story of Amanda Wingfield’s desperate attempts to make a better life for her grown children, Laura and Tom (despite her restrictive view of what those lives should be), echoes many people’s experiences. Those attempts, coupled with the characters’ failed dreams and missed opportunities, make the play universal.
Although the play is regularly produced, its melancholy, poetic atmosphere is difficult to get right. Founding artistic director Jonathan Bohun Brady understands this, providing a strong interpretation that doesn’t tamper with the play’s essentials but allows for intriguing tweaks.
The production’s impact begins with designer Charles Murdock Lucas’ imaginative 1930s St. Louis apartment. Without walls, the setting’s period furnishings float on an island of white shards, like broken pieces of Laura’s glass animal collection. When Tom narrates his reminiscences, he paces in front of the island, separating now from then. Stevan Dupour’s lighting, dappled and sometimes candle-lit, adds wispy, nostalgic overlays.
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To indicate how memory works, director Brady has Amanda and Laura in simple gray rehearsal garb in the first scene, adding pieces of designer Dina Perez’s costuming in successive scenes to ultimately bring the pair into colorful focus.
Such symbols make the production distinctive, but its most impressive element is the deeply moving characterizations that Brady elicits. Shannon Malone’s Amanda is more youthful and perky than is often seen, but it works for her version of the former Southern belle trying to maintain her past way of life. Her Amanda is also quite humorous, but she lets the character’s disappointment and weariness show in strategic moments.
Adam Poole’s Tom is extremely sympathetic, brusque and hardened by his circumstances but tender underneath. Poole’s several long scenes with Malone are the production’s emotional highlights, battles of equally stubborn opponents who, nevertheless, deeply love each other.
Maigan Kennedy communicates Laura’s reticence and insecurity touchingly. Her momentary blossoming with Jim, the gentleman caller, is heartbreaking, although she often speaks at too low a volume while characterizing the shyness. As Jim, Chris Wright projects an appealing nice-guy image. Jim’s self-confident aspects are not overdone, while emphasizing his own doubts and disappointments.
Brady’s confident, well-paced direction gives the production a satisfying professionalism, promising much for future presentations fulfilling the company’s mission of exploring a single playwright per season.
What: “The Glass Menagerie,” presented by Bartlett Theater
Where: PSI Theater, Durham Arts Council, 120 Morris St., Durham
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 11-12; 8 p.m. Nov. 13-14; 2 p.m. Nov. 15
Tickets: $25 (students/seniors $15)
Info: 919-808-2203 or bartletttheater.org