No Illusions 

The Berkeley Rep stages a robust, troubling Glass Menagerie.

Tennessee Williams probably didn't intend for his Glass Menagerie to be taken as a gauzy, nostalgic look at a family lost in time. His journals and letters reveal discontent and struggle that wind through all of his characters and scenarios. Dedicated to living as truthfully and passionately as he could in one of America's most stunningly antigay periods, Williams perfected a style of playwriting that concealed as much as it revealed, forcing audiences to be alert to subtle clues.

Written while Williams was at MGM working on a Lana Turner vehicle, The Glass Menagerie follows the implosion of the Wingfield clan. Tom dreams out his days working in a shoe warehouse, writing poems on scraps of paper. Meanwhile his chatty mother hustles magazine subscriptions, trying to make enough money to get her reclusive daughter Laura trained in some lucrative skill. The apartment's too small, the money too tight, and Tom's need for adventure too great; tensions rise as Amanda pins her hopes on a mysterious gentleman caller (a brisk and booming Terrence Riordan).

It's easy to play these characters in soft focus: the painfully shy girl, the bossy, fading belle of a mother, the restless son poised for flight. But in the robust and troubling Berkeley Rep production, director Les Waters and his actors don't fall prey. Emily Donahoe's Laura is fine as long as she can stay within the cushioned world she has created for herself and interact only with her family. Rita Moreno's Amanda likewise is tough and clear-headed, the silliness of her thirty-year-old party dress aside. As Tom, Erik Lochtefeld is twitchy, slumped, shabby, and ultimately poetic. These characters are anything but fragile and deluded. Whether they can function "normally" in the world outside their home is another question.

There are some nice moments of connection — Amanda and Tom out on the fire escape, Amanda flirting with Jim, Tom and Laura alone. Scott Bradley's claustrophobic set is vaguely hexagonal in cross-section, reminiscent of the glass case that holds Laura's collection of little glass animals, making the stage action seem particularly vulnerable. Even the scale adds to the sense of pressure. Both the men who come through the apartment are too tall for the doorways and furniture. There's also a nice contrast between the muted tones of the apartment and the bright primary colors of the lights that shine onto the building from the nearby Paradise Dance Hall.

In his excellent book Gentleman Callers, which examines Williams in historical context, dramaturg Michael Paller details how virulent antigay sentiment was fifty years ago. Remember that Eisenhower's Executive Order 10450 stated that homosexuality was "necessary grounds" for disqualification from federal jobs. Fully 20 percent of the American workforce — anyone who worked in the government, or for a company that did business with the government — could legally be fired simply because someone suspected that they were gay. Or bounced out of the military, reported to the FBI, barred from purchasing alcohol, and tossed in jail every time a kid went missing. Williams wasn't being evasive because he thought there was anything wrong with being gay, or out of the internalized homophobia with which some modern critics have saddled him. He was evasive because putting gay characters onstage required it.

One of the vexing questions of this play has always been Tom's sexuality. In a play Williams referred to as "vaguely autobiographical," Tom is patterned after the playwright, down to having the same given name, frequenting the same cruising spot, and working in the same business. But Waters and Lochtefeld choose delicacy over bluntness. If you're looking for it, it's there; if you want to believe that he's just a restless straight boy, go right ahead. But in its intensity, this production allows the viewer no more illusions than its inhabitants.


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