The quirky, absorbing revival of Tennessee Williams’ deathless memory play “The Glass Menagerie” at the Colony Theatre may inspire debate. If it does, that is a tribute to its accomplishments as well as its paradoxes.
Director Jessica Kubzansky has audacious tricks in her pocket that recast truth and illusion, and “Glass Menagerie” is innately unconventional anyway. Since its legendary 1944 Chicago tryout, the poetically universal “Menagerie” has withstood comparisons to Chekhov, the performances of many mature actresses and countless academic readings to retain its singular place in American theater.
As Williams surrogate Tom Wingfield (an inspired Louis Lotorto) warns us before the fire escape of designer Michelle Ney’s metal-frame set, “Menagerie” is unrealistic. Here, dropcloths cover the Wingfields’ St. Louis apartment, and Kubzansky goes for Williams-as-Pirandello. Tom exposes the aging furnishings, including the title crystal zoo, absent Dad’s grinning photo -- and, magically, Tom’s Southern belle mother, Amanda (the heroic Lisa Pelikan), and crippled sister, Laura (a translucent Mandy Freund).
This masterful gambit, with Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting locating each element, proves thematic. Throughout, Kubzansky places Tom’s narrator persona both within and against his remembered self and family, until time and space become as palpable and jagged as broken glass.
Kubzansky assigns each Wingfield a physical vocabulary, subtly underscoring the fearsome love that drives “Menagerie.” For instance, when Amanda makes her first magazine subscription pitch, narrator Tom hands her the phone. Amanda’s repeated maternal caresses mirror Tom’s scarf play with Laura and Laura’s reverential handling of her figurines (props by Robyn Taylor).
More rethinking attends the text, played for laughs and jolts in unusual places. Appropriately, this climaxes when Tom, at Amanda’s insistence, brings home co-worker Jim O’Connor (the superb Johnathan McClain). A former high school idol, Jim is the plot’s emissary from the real world. As metaphors mingle and shatter with his arrival, the results are almost unbearably poignant.
The players, whom Kubzansky casts for quality over type, reward her -- and Williams -- by gripping the house. McClain combines correct bonhomie with stunning dark grace notes, moving us not only for Laura but also for Jim. Lotorto invests the present Tom’s monologues and the past Tom’s conflicts with great truthfulness and heartbreaking affect.
Pelikan’s Amanda will be controversial, although Pelikan, who seems born to play Laura, brilliantly conveys the “little woman of great but confused vitality” whom Williams requests. Pelikan simply reads younger than her years, but her technique is impeccable. As Laura, Freund inhabits this pathologically shy creature in one long arc to the haunting denouement (Kubzansky’s boldest coup) and needs only to tone down her limp to be definitive.
Under Pivnick’s illumination, Ney’s set and period costumes are imposing, though Amanda’s party hoop skirt is, however entertaining, a distraction. Moreover, the tribal drum theme that disfigures designer-composer Randall Tico’s otherwise pristine sound plot must go. Yet the gallantry of director and company is considerable. To riff on Williams: Nowadays the world is lighted by ever-hotter lightning, and so is this vivid “Menagerie.”
‘The Glass Menagerie’
Where: Colony Theatre, 555 N. 3rd St., Burbank
When: 3 and 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 7 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; beginning March 2, 8 p.m. Thursdays
Ends: March 12
Price: $30 to $40
Contact: (818) 558-7000, Ext. 15.