A Class Menagerie

Play House Re-animates A Williams Classic

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How fortunate is the paucity of truth in advertising. For if there were any veracity in the Cleveland Play House's recurrent Plain Dealer ad for The Glass Menagerie, one might suspect that Tennessee Williams' career-making memory play had been morphed into a wheezing sex comedy re-titled The Hot Menagerie. The ad features a Maybeline headshot of the '70s TV ingénue Linda Purl, looking as if she were about to star in a musicalization of Dynasty. But fear not, the staid institution on Euclid is not capable of such colorful perversity.

Artistic Director Michael Bloom, who helms the present mounting, is paying his debt to Williams, atoning for his derailed A Streetcar Named Desire a few seasons ago with an amazingly on-track Menagerie. This is definitely not a production you'd find on Broadway; for there is no pressure to do vulgar reinterpretations or to build an edifice to a glory-seeking celeb. With its unerring good sense and sensitivity to the work's wry wit and luminous poetry, it displays the sound dependability that sends cultural pilgrims across the border to Canadian theater festivals.

Debuting at WWII's end, this impressionistic work ushered in a new epoch in American theater. It was the playwright's exquisite mea culpa to his mother and sister - a sentimental account of Thomas Lanier Williams' flight from familial responsibility to become the iconic Tennessee. Bloom wrote a textbook on directing, centered on an exemplary staging of Menagerie, and it's obvious he has a thorough knowledge of the piece. He thus has been especially attentive to corralling a crack production team who've all done yeoman's service in recreating the author's dream world.

First and foremost is Purl, proving that the theater is capable of wonderful surprises. One would not expect The Fonz's onetime girlfriend to emerge as an ideal Amanda Wingfield. With the translucent ruined beauty of a chipped porcelain figurine, she makes us earnestly believe every girlhood anecdote of besotted gentlemen callers. She wisely chooses not to overplay with Hepburn-ish affectation or magnolia-drenched inflection, but imbues the part with complete emotional honesty and directness. In the process, she uncovers hidden ironies and humor that have eluded many other actresses, and is even able to turn a simple "Bless you" into a haunting benediction.

Ever since John Malkovich lisped his way through the Paul Newman film version, there's been an unfortunate tendency to conceive of the narrating son Tom as Williams' alter ego by playing him as St. Louis fey. The handsomely robust Daniel Damon Joyce here refreshingly reverses this tendency by making Tom a swashbuckler trapped in a cage. He's particularly good at conveying the character's sense of frustrating artistic confinement.

Alison Lani as the crippled daughter is an affecting wraith. As her designated suitor, Sorin Brouwers has the cheerful, phony loudness of a houndstooth suit. Adding substantially to the aura of memory so important to the play is Robert Mark Morgan's evocative set, made to shimmer by Michael Lincoln's adept lighting.

Back in the '60s, when every middle-aged actress wanted a crack at Amanda, Williams suggested that it was time to lay the play to rest for a while. Perhaps if he'd seen this production, he'd have smilingly allowed, "Well, maybe just one more time."

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The Glass Menagerie Through October 5 Cleveland Play House 8500 Euclid Ave. 216.795.7000

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