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'The Glass Menagerie' is polished and professional

It would be difficult to find a more professional and polished production of Tennessee Williams’ acknowledged masterpiece “The Glass Menagerie” than the one being done by the Theater Arts program at Southern Oregon University’s Oregon Center for the Arts.

“The Glass Menagerie,” is a deceptively simple play. One set, four characters, two acts. As the character Tom — Williams’ alter ego in this poignant, semi-autobiographical work — tells us in the prologue: “The play is memory … It is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.”

That may be true. But the actors must make us acutely aware that these characters are real people. Their disappointments and dreams are genuine. With direction by faculty member James Edmondson, this production’s four student performers powerfully achieve that — there are no false steps here, nothing jarring, nothing out of character.

Tamra Mathias, a senior transfer to SOU from Scottsdale Community College, beautifully captures the complexity of Amanda, the manipulative, fading Southern belle who alternately cajoles and bullies her children.

Amanda followed her heart rather than her head when she chose a charming stranger rather than the familiar, predictable suitors courting her on those languid Southern afternoons. Now, she is paying for that folly, pining for what might have been and desperate to see that her son, Tom, and daughter, Laura, have the economic security she capriciously threw away.

Seasoned actors long to play Amanda. Actors as diverse as the spellbinding Laurette Taylor, who introduced the character when the play opened on Broadway in 1945, Maureen Stapleton, Jessica Tandy, Julie Harris and Jessica Lange found the role’s emotional rollercoaster was a career-changer.

Rebecca Curtis, an SOU senior, brings to the fragile Laura the necessary combination of vulnerability and hidden resilience. Curtis makes us believe that Laura might just survive in her own way when Tom makes his escape.

Henry Steelhammer, a senior transfer from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, gives Tom equal parts of the restless frustration, anguished regret and exasperated humor that Williams’ nuanced dialogue requires.

The second act of “The Glass Menagerie” stands or falls with the actor who plays Jim O’Connor, Laura’s “gentleman caller.” The narrator introduces him as the only “real” character in the play and, certainly, his determined optimism only emphasizes how thoroughly smothered the Wingfield household has been by Amanda’s desperation. Devin White, an SOU junior, deftly carries off this balancing act — abashed, hesitant and yet ebullient.

Director Edmondson is a 38-season performer with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It is obvious he knows this play well. He has provided subtle, ambiguous physical stage business that says more about what lies below the surface of these characters than a straightforward reading of the play might reveal.

For each of these student actors, “The Glass Menagerie” is the culminating creative project to satisfy their thesis requirement for their Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. For the audience, it is a brilliant evening of theater.

The thoroughly professional technical team, Scenic Designer Marc Wheeler, Costume Designer Shannon Benn, Lighting Designer Sarah Schwartz and Sound Designer Jonathan Pratt, are also SOU Theater Arts program students.

“The Glass Menagerie” plays in SOU’s Center Square Theatre through March 1. Performances run on Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. with a matinee at 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 28 and Sunday, March 1. Tickets are $21 for regular admission, $18 for seniors and $6 for students.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

ìThe Glass Menagerieî plays in SOUís Center Square Theatre through March 1.