Entertainment » Reviews

The Glass Menagerie

by Adam Brinklow
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Jul 12, 2017
Rafael Jordan (Jim) and Phoebe Fico (Laura)
Rafael Jordan (Jim) and Phoebe Fico (Laura)  

Something old becomes very new again at Cal Shakes' "The Glass Menagerie," which injects a modern brand of sensitivity into Tennessee Williams' classic about a family slowly rubbed away by the pressures of poverty and their own desires.

"Menagerie" has always had the theme of disability at its heart, but this Lisa Portes production puts that squarely at the center of things in a way that perhaps no previous staging ever has.

New York actor Phoebe Fico is Laura, the shy and retiring sister with the lame leg whose future -- or possibly her lack of a future -- drive the family's desperation in their particularly depressed Depression-era life in St Louis.

Usually "Menagerie" gets preoccupied with Laura's physical problems, but Fico (who herself walks with the support of two canes, the anachronistic design of which bring an unexpected degree of extra realism to the stage) invests more in the character's mental and emotional vulnerability.

Her effortful delivery -- some of Fico's lines retreat before they're even fully spoken -- at first sounds artificial compared to her costars.

But soon it's clear that Fico seems out of place only because she produces the most truly real performance of the entire night. Everyone else seems like, well, an actor -- great actors in this case, but still, as the play puts it, "pleasant disguises of illusion."

Fico's plausible compassion is groundbreaking by comparison. And she brings the play's mental health issues to bear: Laura, we realize, is not just "shy" or coping with the "inferiority complex" that the others harness her with, or even hampered by trouble walking. She has undiagnosed mental health obstacles, and damn if she's not in the worst possible circumstances for anyone to even recognize that.

The life of the working poor offers rough handling and unyielding boundaries. It's one thing to be a fish out of water; this is more like a fish in a cook fire.

Sean San Jose (last seen at Cal Shakes as the exiled prince in "Life Is a Dream") steps in as older brother Tom, the narrator and Williams alter ego who supports the family but craves independence like an animal craves fresh meat.

San Jose summons up petulance and flippant hangman's wit that makes for his best Cal Shakes turn ever. And director Portes and set designer Annie Smart give him some extra material to work with -- literally. The stage starts as a blank and empty box until Tom at various intervals hauls in furnishings and, over the course of 100 minutes, actually sets the scene.

More than just a clever visual touch, San Jose now gets to combine the swirling anger of his words with sometimes quiet attentiveness as he shuttles in whatever the others suddenly need.

Karen Aldridge, recently of Peter Brooks' somber stage poem "Battlefield" at ACT, takes up the reins as mother and jilted former Southern belle Amanda, desperate to attract a potential husband for Laura and keenly aware of the impending economic necessity of finding something -- anything -- to pull the family up.

It's one thing that Aldridge's words and stares and the sardonic way her mouth twists up when unhappy practically drip with honey-sweet poison.

But the way she wilts at her own words makes Amanda -- poor, angry, spiteful, mistreated, but ultimately almost always right Amanda -- seem a victim in her own right, sometimes of her own behavior but often of powers outside of anyone's control.

Portes and her cast break "Menagerie" right out of the repertory rack and push it into the present day as a sharp, timely, sensitive, and entirely contemporary seeming tragedy. Calling it a resurrection wouldn't be right, because there are no miracles here. Just hard work and damn good theater.

"The Glass Menagerie" runs through July 30 at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater in Orinda. For tickets and information, call 510-548-9666 or visit CalShakes.org.

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