NO MATTER HOW well a Tennessee Williams play is done, there are some people who have had their fill of "that maudlin trash." Although I'm often one of that number, I submit a temporary resignation for the length of this review; all the rest of you scorners can either stop reading now, or continue and learn that you can't judge a play by its title.
The words Williams places in the mouth of his narrator, Tom Wingfield, in effect give permission to the audience to become caught up in this nostalgic dream world without embarrassment: "The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic." Williams's candor and excellent performances by the cast make the familiar inhabitants of this smoky, battered memory sympathetic, rather than corny. Since her husband, a telephone man "in love with distance," skipped St. Louis, Amanda Wingfield (Melissa Mueller) has ruled her son and daughter with badgering questions and faded Southern charm. With bent wrist gestures pursed lips and an admirably even accent. Mueller aggravates Tom with admonitions that he smokes too much and chews his food too little, and tortures shy Laura with reminiscences of her years as a belle in Blue Mountain.
Although initially weak, Scott Beckett forsakes the flat declamation of his narrative and excess bravado in the retrospective scenes to become a convincing Tom, the dreamer and poet who finally flees Amanda's carping. As his sister, Gwyneth Gibby conveys all of Laura's stiffness and fear in a tiny voice and bird-like inclinations of her head; she is, as Williams meant her to be, one of the glass figurines of the menagerie.
Two other characters make brief appearances. Mr. Wingfield grins eternally from a portrait which is inexplicably being used to prop open the Victrola; I can't imagine Williams' Amanda tolerating such treatment of a picture of the man she chose over seventeen more promising gentlemen callers. Ken Bartels saunters into the Wingfields' home as Jim, the man who comes to dinner as Laura's first gentleman caller and the focus of all Amanda's hopes for her child. His pocket full of gum wrappers, Bartels's Jim is appropriately more whimsical, but just as ebullient as the high school hero Laura remembers.
Filling one corner of the theater, Wayne Mitchell's elaborate set enhances the illusion of dream. Mitchell has included every detail -- the torn green couch, the faded rug, the moldy wallpaper -- as if to say: if you had been stifled in this apartment for so long, you too would remember all its soiled and tattered furnishings. The potential weight of this massive set dissolves under Donnally Miller's lighting. By highlighting or spotlighting the actors, he at once casts most of the state into the dusk of memory and infuses the room with the state of mind the actors are projecting. Thus as Tom silently apologizes to Laura just after he has taunted and cursed his mother, the dark room broods behind his regret and her acceptance.
In this setting, the actors would and comfort each other with a natural delicacy that testifies to Arthur Feinsod's patient direction. Feinsod has allowed certain adaptations to develop during rehearsal -- like Mueller's entertaining monologues as she tries to persuade her friends to renew their subscription to The Homemaker's Companion. He has honed away various lighting cues of the original script that might seem hokey today. What is left is a memory as transient as the match that Tom strikes to light a cigarette before each scene; the match flares, then the set lights go up. For those who can still enjoy a sentimental evening, this is Tennessee Williams at its best.