Has there been a more humorously arresting version of "The Glass Menagerie" than the one that opened Friday at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis?
Director Joseph Haj's achingly poetic revival of Tennessee Williams' breakout classic is studded with laughs, mined organically from the language and the situations in a story about distant longings and halted dreams. Filled with sentiment, regret and an enduring hope that burns like the candelabra that flickers at the center of the Wurtele Thrust Stage, "Menagerie" floats like memories come to beautiful life on Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams' dark, metal-accented set.
The Guthrie last staged "Menagerie" in 2007, a Joe Dowling production whose innovation was to split the character of Tom in two — an older version as narrator and the younger version as the lost youth. Haj dispenses with that novel duality — returning the memory play to the way it has been performed since its 1944 premiere.
Haj cast compelling actor Remy Auberjonois ("Cyrano") as Tom. Grizzled and charismatic, Auberjonois is pitch perfect as the narrator blowing cigarette smoke as he loiters on a fire escape and looks back on his life. And in the role of the younger Tom, he finds comedy in simple things like a scarf pulled tight around the neck to symbolize that Tom would rather hang himself than listen to more prattle from his mother, Amanda.
Still, Auberjonois seems a bit long in the tooth when he goes into character as the young Tom, who is in his early 20s. In this aspect, he seems more like a contemporary of Amanda (crackling spitfire Jennifer Van Dyck) than her son. And the actors playing Tom's sister, Laura (heartbreakingly fragile Carey Cox), and the handsome gentleman caller (Grayson DeJesus) could both be cast as Auberjonois' kids.
One of Williams' hallmarks as a dramatist is his complex female characters, whether Blanche Dubois in "A Streetcar Named Desire," Maggie in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" or Alma in "Summer and Smoke." Stewing in regret about all the great choices she once had as a Southern belle — 17 gentleman callers, making her "The Bachelorette" of her day — Amanda points to the emotional explosiveness of these iconic women.
Van Dyck is brilliantly enthralling as Amanda, an abandoned single mother who knows the harshness of the world and wants her children to be able to take care of themselves. Courtly and charming, her Amanda does everything with gusto as if her energy and wits can undo the past, make right the present and guarantee a bright future. She owns the role.
Cox's Laura is brittle and vulnerable and altogether beautiful. When she looks at herself in the mirror after her mother has helped her dress for a visitor, her smile tells you that she's seeing her power and beauty for the first time. Hers is an affecting and poignant performance that invites understanding, appreciation and joy.
For his part, DeJesus gives us a gentleman caller who is kind and sweet, even if he ultimately is a heartbreaker.
The performances help to make Haj's version of this classic story contemporary and touching. And the humor that Haj coaxes out of his actors helps lift characters, and thus the play, out of its anxiety and sadness into a sweet, lyrical light.