SAN DIEGO -- When Mare Winningham makes her dimly lighted entrance in the Old Globe’s new production of "The Glass Menagerie," one could be forgiven for assuming that the Emmy-winning actress is playing Laura, the emotionally and physically crippled daughter in Tennessee Williams' achingly poetic memory play.
Winningham seems too girlish for the part of Laura's mother, Amanda Wingfield, the Southern matriarch who desperately wants a gentleman caller to rescue her daughter (played here by Michelle Federer) from a fate apparently worse than death -- insolvent spinsterhood.
Then, as the light sharpens in Joe Calarco's at best workmanlike staging, Winningham begins to resemble another Williams character -- Stella, Blanche DuBois' sane sister in "A Streetcar Named Desire." That is, if you can imagine Stanley Kowalski's wife living in a Midwestern metropolis as a single mom with only her feisty common sense to guide her.
Unfortunately, the grounded naturalism Winningham brought to the role of the country and western star in the 1995 film "Georgia," for which she received an Oscar nomination, doesn't seem quite right for Amanda. After all, this is the figure that set the mold for all those larger-than-life Williams heroines who seek refuge from harsh reality in memory's soothing balm.
But sometimes the right dress can help enormously. For as soon as Winningham's Amanda digs her old summer finery out of her trunk, she becomes something far less prosaic than a St. Louis tenement-dweller worried about the dead-end prospects of her two grown kids. The delicate garment has certainly seen better days, but it provides a window onto a time when Amanda's future seemed replete with suitors pleading for a dance at the governor's ball.
Who could have predicted that her eventual husband would desert his family, leaving them nothing but the face-saving quip that this telephone company man "fell in love with long distances"? Or that the Great Depression would savagely expose them to an economy with little sympathy for a genteel pedigree or a poet's dreams?
It's no secret that Tom (Michael Simpson), Amanda's son, is a surrogate for Williams. Indeed, part of the greatness of "The Glass Menagerie," written in 1944 while the author was still largely unknown, is the way it captures the emotional cost of a writer's journey toward realizing his deepest self. This central struggle between a young man's imagination and his obligations is, like all the rest of the play's conflicts, rooted in love, which only makes the inevitable betrayal more heartbreaking.
Its sepia-tinged poignancy is the reason the work is produced with such sneezing regularity by large and small theaters alike. But because of the frequency of revivals, a standard-issue staging can seem perfunctory.
What's missing from Calarco's production is a unifying directorial vision. His actors provide fresh glosses on their characters, but they rarely seem to belong to the same theatrical household (sketchily designed by Michael Fagin). It's as if they had worked independently on their roles and crossed their fingers that they'd somehow blend into an ensemble.
Performed in the round at the intimate Cassius Carter Centre Stage (which is about to be replaced by a new theater center), the production is further hampered by an unavoidable architectural obstacle -- the actors' faces cannot always be seen by the audience. Calarco compounds this frustration in the gentleman caller's scene by staging the blackout dinner party by candlelight so faint that we might just as well be listening to a radio drama.
Still, there are occasional insights to be gleaned from the individual portrayals. With her limp appearing and disappearing unexpectedly, Federer's Laura seems more mentally ill than physically challenged, which isn't too much of a stretch when you consider that Williams' real-life sister suffered from schizophrenia.
Simpson's Tom is angrier than we're accustomed to. Stuck with a warehouse job to support his family, he's seething with resentment about having to finish poems in the bathroom at work while constantly fending off his mother's criticism at home. Though he doesn't exactly radiate a writer's sensitivity, he allows us to understand the bark and growl of a son who feels derailed.
As the gentleman caller, Kevin Isola stresses the mediocrity and male egotism of Jim O'Connor, whose patronizing tone blunts any notion of romantic fantasy. His paltriness deepens our awareness of the Wingfields' diminished options -- can this really be Laura's last chance at salvation?
Winningham sets out giving us a woman mired in quotidian checkbook emergencies. She's always admirably unfussy, and one can appreciate her refusal to dabble in interpretive clichés. But it takes too long for her to reveal that her character's flamboyant theatricality is one of her most realistic features.
Of course we want the lyricism in Williams to be steeped in human truth, but that doesn't mean it has to be cramped. For all the play's tragic somberness, "The Glass Menagerie" reassures us that even when our lives have been stripped bare, they can still be worthy of the grandeur of fiction.
'The Glass Menagerie' Where: Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays Ends: May 18 Price: $42 to $59 Contact: (619) 234-5623 or www.theoldglobe.org Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes