Tom Wingfield may have things up his sleeve, but he is the opposite of a stage magician. The magician's job is to give us illusion that has the appearance of truth.
"I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion," says Justin Samuel Cowan, playing Tom in Next Stage Rep's dreamy, radiant revival of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie," which opened Friday night at the Craterian Theater in Medford, directed by Doug Warner.
What: "The Glass Menagerie," Tennessee Williams' groundbreaking drama
Who: Next Stage Repertory
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 13, and 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14.
Where: Craterian Theater, 23 S. Central Ave., Medford.
Tickets: $15; 541-779-3000 or www.craterian.org.
Tom is both the play's narrator, bringing lights and music to life with the flick of a finger, and a participant, as the freedom-yearning son of the domineering Amanda and a sympathetic brother to the fragile Laura.
"In memory, everything seems to happen to music," Tom says, going meta on us and speaking to the audience directly as he drags on a cigarette on the fire escape landing of the family's shabby apartment in 1937 St. Louis. "That explains the fiddle in the wings."
The "fiddle" isn't a fiddle, but the soft jazz guitar of Bil Leonhart, which mixes with Brad Nelson's moody lighting to create the play's dream-like atmosphere. But Leonhart's playing is more than atmosphere. It echoes the emotional flow of the play at key moments.
The dim lights in the Wingfield apartment illuminate not just the set but Tom's memory, as the changing colors of a large screen at the rear of the set underscore the play's moods.
Tom will repeatedly return to the fire escape as a refuge from the hothouse of his relationship with Amanda, each time breaking the fourth wall by addressing us directly, reminding us that we're in a memory world in which time has been manipulated for us.
Warner's spare set concretizes the details of this world: a sofa, a dining table and chairs, the typewriter where Tom (called "Shakespeare" by his work pal, Jim O'Connor) tries to write, an old Victrola, the nook where Laura keeps the fragile glass animals that give the play its name.
But, of course, there's no such world. And Williams' misfit characters struggle with a world that's seemingly cruel or, perhaps more frighteningly, utterly indifferent.
In this world, Tom wants escape from his family, Amanda wants to escape into an imaginary past (and take her children with her), and Laura would like to escape to a world where even damaged creatures like glass animals are safe.
Presila Quinby's portrayal of faded Southern belle Amanda sets your teeth on edge with her incessant hectoring of her grown children. Her handsome, charismatic husband, whose photo is still on display in the apartment, abandoned her and the children 16 years ago, prefiguring Tom's urge to roam.
Amanda's tragedy is that she lives in an illusory past, and thus all her histrionic devices are as pointless as the bite of a dog into a stone. It is impossible for Tom or Laura to be the people she wants them to be in a world that doesn't exist.
Hanna Grenfell endows the pathologically shy Laura with an inner something that's even more crippling than a severe limp. Her nervous primping before the arrival of the gentleman caller — a marvelous moment for Grenfell — is almost too painful to watch. And that's just the prelude to the emotional meat grinder that will see her begin, achingly, to open up to regular-guy Jim, only to learn, matter-of-factly, a shattering truth.
Adam Cuppy, who played Tom in a memorable production of "The Glass Menagerie" at ArtAttack Theatre in Ashland some years ago, hits the right note as Jim, the decent if not overly bright fellow who is an unwitting instrument of pain for Laura. A former popular classmate of Tom and Laura's who always seemed to move in a spotlight, he's learning slowly that the real world is not high school.
Cowan's Tom chafes under the needling of Amanda, who fears that, like his father, he will leave her. This isn't just an emotional problem. Tom is, other than the pittance Amanda might earn selling magazine subscriptions, the family's sole support.
The "Menagerie," which introduced Williams to the world like a comet in 1944, is unusual in that while it is Tom's story, he doesn't dominate the action in the play's present (which is his past). He and Laura are overshadowed by the maneuverings of Amanda in the first act, and Laura's heartbreaking scene with Jim is the extended emotional climax of the second.
In turning back time to confront his family, Tom reveals his own arc almost as an afterthought.
Williams believed that the rush of time robs us of meaning. The aura of significance around these damaged characters — an aura we don't see in daily life — comes from Tom's arresting of time. In his memory, these ephemeral characters are freeze-framed, as unchanging as Laura's little glass animals.
With its dream-like mise en scene, moving performances and feeling of depth, this "Menagerie" is haunted by a sharp sense of the impermanence of life. It is the most impressive and satisfying work I've seen from Next Stage in its two years of existence. It continues at the GRT Friday and Saturday, Sept. 13 and 14.
Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.