The Glass Menagerie has become required reading for many middle-schoolers, and that's a shame. But it does make sense: Tennessee Williams' 1944 breakthrough seems ideally suited to expanding young minds. It's a sexless fantasia of memory, florid with antebellum references and flights of literary fancy that offer a romanticized glimpse of prewar America. What's more, it's a perfect tool for explaining how stage theatricality differs from the tyranny of naturalism.
Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St. (Seattle Center), 443-2222, seattlerep.org. $12-$70. Runs Wed.-Sun. Ends Dec. 2.
But as Seattle Rep's new production ably demonstrates, it's also one hell of a fine play—meant to be seen, not read. There's nothing remotely realistic or contemporary about Williams' sad reminiscence of unrequited love, told through a hazy reverie by Tom Wingfield (Ben Huber). He strolls onstage, lights a cigarette, and begins to weave this tale, explaining at the outset that everything is depicted simply as he remembers it.
For those few unfamiliar with the plot, Tom is beset by his faded Southern socialite mother Amanda (Suzanne Bouchard) and tethered to a dead-end warehouse job. He'd have left home years ago were it not for his handicapped sister, Laura (Brenda Joyner). She limps from one end of their apartment to another like a purposeless pet no one has the nerve to put down. She spends her days pining after a high-schooler several social strata beyond her grasp, only to discover that one night, the co-worker her brother is bringing for dinner is the dreamboat in question. Jim (Eric Riedmann) works miracles for her self-esteem. Yet when she discovers he's already engaged, she plummets back into somnambulence.
Watching The Glass Menagerie now makes for a strange kind of anachronism. Generational angst and despair drip from every line, but getting to the core of these sorrows and defeats is a tricky proposition. These characters aren't drifting Dust Bowl migrants; they have jobs and families and creature comforts. They're damaged and hopeless not because of the Great Depression, but owing to internal constraints.
Laura's broken heart and busted glasswork are refracted through a brilliant set and lighting (by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams and L.B. Morse, respectively; Braden Abraham directs). The play's final vortex of gloom mocks that old saw, which Amanda might once have endorsed: " 'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all." No, Williams insists. It isn't.