When traveling into the memories of another person, it's expected you'd encounter some patchy spots. Why, for example, is there an anachronistic daybed in the middle of this 1940s apartment? What, exactly, is that tall, strong girl's unidentifiable (but still apparently tragic) disability? Was it really that dark all the time?
The conceit of Tennessee Williams' memory play The Glass Menagerie, now playing at Theatre Three, is that Tom, a seafaring merchant marine, has paused to light up a smoke and share a bit about his past. Namely, what it was like living with the overbearing mother and painfully shy older sister he was expected to take care of back in St. Louis.
For the adventure-seeking Tom (Blake Blair), who takes after his long-disappeared father, he'd rather be anywhere else. As we watch his demanding, rude and manipulative mama berate and order him about, it's easy to see why.
Rather than play the faded Southern belle Amanda Wingfield as Mommie Dearest, Connie Coit softens her sniping with comedy. Just her physical presence is a punch line, as the tiny, birdlike Coit is all but blotted out by her towering children: Blair, an Aryan giant, and Allison Pistorius, a statuesque brunette. There's a manic glitter in her eyes as she arranges a date for her unpopular daughter, and a girlish titter to her speech when she recalls her debutante days.
This helps keep Amanda from being a straight-up monster, but feels at odds with the utter seriousness Blair brings to his role. Sometimes it feels like he goes too far, and there's only the tiniest bit of sympathy when Tom finally abandons his family in their dark apartment (he chooses to pay his sailor fees instead of the light bill).
It's hard at first to imagine the lovely Pistorius as a drab girl who vomits at the thought of interacting with strangers, but she fully embraces Laura Wingfield's tremulous speech and timid movements, letting a thousand contrasting emotions fly across her face. The awkward in-the-round stage at Theatre Three doesn't even present a problem, as Pistorius gracefully plays to all sides.
Director Bruce Richard Coleman's cluttered set design, however, is more distracting than evocative, while Lisa Miller's lighting is at times just plain odd.
Sterling Gafford, who made quite the DFW theater debut in Uptown Players' The Nance, pops up as Jim, a co-worker of Tom's who is persuaded to come to dinner (ostensibly to meet Laura). It's a difficult role in a play built on nuanced characters, and Gafford gets the ratio of charming gentleman caller and slightly selfish young man just right.
It's obvious the effect Jim has on Laura, since when she stammers, "I've been playing the victrola," she might as well be Baby Houseman carrying the watermelon in Dirty Dancing. Moments like that from Pistorius bring The Glass Menagerie out of the gloom and into a sharp spotlight.
Theatre Three's The Glass Menagerie plays through August 23.