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THEATER REVIEW: Check out Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" at Cygnet Theatre

There’s something to be said for updating classics, either in the interest of “relevance” or in an attempt to give playgoers a different way to look at a play.

I assume this explains Sean Murray’s approach to Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” playing through Nov. 13 at Cygnet Theatre.

Andy Hull’s set tells the story: a two-level family apartment, dining room on one, living room on the other. Off to one side is a desk and a typewriter with papers strewn about.

Francis Gercke breaks the fourth wall by playing both Tom, the narrator and playwright Williams. At the top of the play, it’s Williams, sitting at the desk writing the opening monologue.

When his mother Amanda (Rosina Reynolds) calls Tom for dinner, the actor does not move, but speaks from the desk – as Tom. This continues to happen, as he moves from one character to the other.

“The Glass Menagerie,” probably Williams’ most autobiographical play, is a sad, even tragic masterpiece, one of the most often revived plays in the literature.

Reynolds’ Amanda is a wondrous combination of steely determination and frilly Southern belle charm. She doesn’t quite depend “on the kindness of strangers” like Blanche DuBois, but despite the fondly remembered (and recounted) night when she had 17 gentlemen callers, she is now a single mom without the fancy life she expected to have as a young woman.

Tom is a young wannabe writer in search of excitement, which he does not find in his dead-end warehouse job. He longs to get away, but stays in order to support Amanda and his younger sister Laura (Amanda Sitton).

He wrangles verbally with Amanda every day, pushed by the gratingly annoying morning “Rise and shine!” that may eventually drive Tom away, perhaps just as it had led Tom’s father to “fall in love with long distance” 15 years earlier.

Laura is an excruciatingly shy little thing whose psychological fragility is so out of proportion to her slight limp that she has withdrawn into a fantasy world of glass figurines, the menagerie of the title.

Laura’s failed attempt at secretarial school (it had made her so nervous she vomited on the floor and then couldn’t tell her mother she’d quit) drives Amanda to ask Tom to bring a “nice boy” home from the warehouse for dinner. The intent is obvious.

In the second act, he does, and the transformation of harried mother to charming Southern belle in a long faded yellow dress and Southern flirtatious hospitality is as poignantly sad as it is amusing.

And when the Gentleman Caller (Brian Mackey) arrives, he turns out to be the one boy Laura had a high-school crush on, leading to a lovely but sad scene that will not end the way Amanda had planned.

Sitton is heartbreaking as Laura, a girl whose psyche is as crippled by self-doubt as it is by her physical disability.

Mackey is excellent as the young Irish go-getter. Jim may work in the same warehouse with Tom, but he has dreams and is taking steps to reach them – night school classes in radio and public speaking.

I’m sorry to say that Gercke is miscast as Tom. Tom is an angry young man, desperate to escape. He is a good writer with a poetic turn of mind.

Gercke has fallen into a quirky acting pattern and a breathy delivery that do not work for this role. There’s nothing quirky about Tom; he’s like a volcano about to blow.

Having Gercke seesaw between Williams and Tom gets points for originality, but tends to break the mood, ruin the poetry of the writing, and lead to awkward staging. The totality is a little too Brechtian and off-putting for my taste.

But the rest of the production is fine indeed, most especially Reynolds’ luminous performance as Amanda. Shirley Pierson’s costumes, George Ye’s original music, and Matt Lescault-Wood’s sound design and Michalle Caron’s lighting are all pluses.

The details

“The Glass Menagerie” plays through Nov. 13 at Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St. in Old Town.

Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 3 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

For tickets call (619) 337-1525 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE..