Tennessee Williams' award-winning play The Glass Menagerie is an American classic, familiar to anyone who has taken an introductory high-school drama class over the last half-century. With its simple plot and small cast, it is a staple of community theaters all over the country, and because it offers plum roles, it likewise graces the stages of numerous professional regional companies each season. It has been revived a half-dozen times on Broadway since its 1945 premiere and sparked several movie and TV versions.

The melancholy "memory play" was Williams' first theatrical success, and the story of the Wingfield family of St. Louis remains his most autobiographical rendering. The playwright speaks through the character of Tom Wingfield, the hard-working and dutiful son of Amanda, a faded flower of the Old South, who is desperately trying to hold her family together in the wake of the Depression. Tom's father is an absent ne'er-do-well who abandoned his kin years ago — a telephone-company employee who "fell in love with long distances."

Rounding out the familial dramatis personae is the character of Laura. Loosely based on Williams' own beloved sister, Rose, Laura is a shy, crippled girl who shuns others, preferring to spend her time listening to old phonograph records and playing with her collection of delicate glass sculptures — her glass menagerie.

Tom and Amanda scrap and wrestle with one another's conflicting desires — Tom desperately wants to leave his tedious warehouse job and strike out on the road to adventure; Amanda wants him to settle down and continue to provide for the family. Still, they do agree to help Laura meet a suitable young man, a "gentleman caller," who might lift her out of herself, provide her with lifelong security, and assuage their own guilty feelings concerning her unhappiness and unsuitability for a normal life.

Eventually, Tom invites a fellow worker over for dinner. Jim is a sweet and friendly young man who was an acquaintance of Tom and Laura in high school. Most of the play's second half follows the tender and fateful conversation between the shy girl and the former big man on campus. Although he's attracted to Laura, when Jim reveals that he is unavailable as a suitor Amanda's plans come crashing down, and the family's tenuous dynamic is altered forever.

Director David Lee has assembled an excellent cast for this production, and the Orlando Shakespeare Theater's version of Williams' masterpiece is a touching and faithful rendition. Anne Hering is brilliant as Amanda, moving seamlessly from the sympathetic and loving mother to the screeching harridan who finally chases Tom, played sensitively by Jim Ireland, from the family fold. Katherine Michelle Tanner is a lovely and affecting Laura, and Brad Roller is charming and personable as Jim.

Handsomely staged on Bob Phillips' intimate and ghostly set, Orlando Shakes' Glass Menagerie evokes the play's poignant portrait of a loving family searching for the "Spartan endurance" needed to overcome life's sad disappointments.


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