(L to R) Karen Aldridge (Amanda), Rafael Jordan (Jim), and Phoebe Fico (Laura) in California Shakespeare Theater’s production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, directed by Lisa Portes; photo by Kevin Berne.

Written in 1944, The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams (1911–1983), still wields the power to convey the truth about the way in which love and need can help and hurt the American family. Standout performances by Karen Aldridge and Sean San José give fresh life to this biographical memory play about the Williams family in St. Louis, Missouri in 1937. Although Cal Shakes Artistic Director Eric Ting and well-known Chicago director Lisa Portes have changed the ethnicity of the family, the variation generally enlarges the scope of Williams’ message, rather than distorts it.

As reflected in The Glass Menagerie, the unhappy young life of Tennessee, known in the production as Tom Wingfield, pivots on his missing father and explores how the remaining family members cope in his absence. Tom’s father, an alcoholic and unsuccessful traveling shoe salesman, had abandoned his family many years before the action of the play, although his smiling portrait has ironic pride of place in the family’s small, claustrophobic apartment.

Absent her bread-winner, Tom’s overbearing mother, named Amanda in the drama, fantasizes fondly about her genteel debutante days in the Deep South, and she recalls having had her pick of rich and eligible beaus. But her effervescence and determination remain, despite her reduced circumstances. Tom’s older sister, Laura, is presented as physically disabled, although in actuality, Williams’ sister was mentally disabled. Painfully shy, Laura is incapable of meaningful work and spends her days listening to old records and playing with her collection of tiny glass animal statuettes.  Much of the drama’s action is about Amanda’s unrealistic expectations that Tom will abandon his dreams of escape — through the movies, his writing and his longing for adventure  — and settle down to his job at the local factory. Most importantly, he must find a “gentleman caller” for Laura.

Rafael Jordan (Jim) and Phoebe Fico (Laura) in California Shakespeare Theater’s production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, directed by Lisa Portes; photo by Kevin Berne.

Animated and talented Sean San José (Segismundo in Life is a Dream) as Tom, opens the 115 minute, one-act production by describing for the audience his memories of life in St. Louis. As he talks, he literally sets the stage by bringing the apartment furniture on to it. This is an ingenious addition by gifted director Lisa Portes, who keeps the play moving nimbly so that humor emerges along with the pathos. At several points in the drama, an older Tom interrupts the action with additional commentary, as he recalls his days with his family.

In this production, Amanda, wonderfully acted by Karen Aldridge in her Cal Shakes debut (Broadway’s Matilda and many Chicago theater credits), is presented as African-American, rather than the lily white Southern Episcopalian and D.A.R. member for which the part was written. Her absent husband is supposed to be a Latino who swept Amanda off her feet. Of course, there is a bit of a disconnect when Amanda talks about her D.A.R. membership, which was infamously segregated at the time the play was written. The gentleman caller is well-acted by Rafael Jordan (Cal Shakes’ King Lear and The Tempest) and Laura is played by New York City poet and disability rights activist Phoebe Fico, making her professional stage debut.

The Glass Menagerie in one of the great American plays of the 20th century.  I’ve seen two movie adaptations and one recent Broadway production. Rather than some of the exaggerated portrayals out there, the characters here are depicted realistically, albeit flawed, with fresh energy and ultimately, with love for each other. The Cal Shakes version is simply excellent.

The Glass Menagerie is playing at the California Shakespeare Theatre through July 30, 2017. Complimentary shuttle from Orinda BART begins 2 hours before curtain. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit http://www.calshakes.org

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Emily S. Mendel

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...