Cedar City • Sure, the Utah Shakespeare Festival is one of our state's great family outings. Yet you have to feel a little sorry for teenagers whose parents tow them into Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie."
With four actors filling its bare Depression-era stage, "The Glass Menagerie" is one of those rare plays where the entire cast eventually seems consumed by the play's true central character, the agonized face of human regret.
Far worse, from a teenager's point of view at least, is the horrific realization that your parents might share more than a little in common with Amanda Wingfield, the harping mother who pretends to care for her children when she's instead nursing the long-dead glories of her own youth.
Make no mistake: If you like serious theater, or need a reality check after winning the lottery, "The Glass Menagerie" is a sure-fire remedy. This devastatingly good production should leave you brooding in the sunshine, skipping dinner for a long-suppressed argument with your spouse, or having a good cry in your car. With all the doors locked, of course.
Some theater critics trace Williams' characters from the defeat of the Confederacy to a straight line ending in the stereotypical Southern traits of stubborn agrarian pride and charming eccentricities. If only it were that simple.
There's truth in history, to be sure. But the pain of seeing yourself and your family reflected in "The Glass Menagerie" is the sort of truth that echoes in line after stinging line of dialogue.
From the eerie opening glow of Tom Wingfield's cigarette to his pained closing lines, we feel the throbbing pain of Williams' soul in most every line of USF's production, directed by J.R. Sullivan.
All that holds it back, at least during July 5's opening performance, is the limited range of actor Ben Jacoby, who plays Tom, the character who's a stand-in for the playwright.
Comparisons between stage and film productions are unfair, of course, yet anyone familiar with John Malkovich's riveting take on the character in Paul Newman's 1987 feature film can't help notice the distance at work in Jacoby's performance. Hopefully, the actor will take more risks as the festival continues.
Huge dividends are paid in Demetra Pittman's stellar take on Amanda Wingfield. Her accent, gestures and posture pack so much subtle punch that you feel the full power of human denial that holds her rapt and isolated from her son, Tom, and her disabled, shy daughter, Laura.
As precise as Pittman is, we still feel the mysterious tragedy at work in her soul. In the words of Tom, that "long delayed but expected something we long for."
USF's set design in the Randall L. Jones Theatre speaks well to Williams' intended St. Louis. The playwright's crucial references to light are honored as well, in a lighting design that lets the audience see even the sparkle through Laura Wingfield's glass unicorn.
One grace note in the sound design nags, however. When characters deliver key lines signaling a drop in the Wingfield family fortunes, a distant thunder rumbles. It's as if Sullivan and the sound designer don't trust the power of Williams' lines never mind the collective intelligence of the audience to deliver the drama's full weight.
All is forgiven by the time we reach the candle-lit confession between Laura, played by Sara J. Griffin, and "gentleman caller" Jim O'Connor, played by Jeb Burris. The two craft a scene of such devastating heartbreak it's as if every awkward crush and first date the world over becomes distilled onstage.
O'Connor attempts to assist her through second-hand bromides, while Laura reciprocates in telling him how she escapes the world rather than confront it. Griffin and Burris embody Williams' characters by sounding out the agonizing boundaries of human loneliness.
The ties and obligations of family may be inescapable, Williams seems to say. But that's not the same as saying they should never be cut, even at a cost to others. Few devastating truths have ever held one drama together better.
"It doesn't take much intelligence to get yourself into a coffin," Tom tells sister Laura. "But who the hell ever got himself out of one without removing one nail?"
So go on: Take your teenage kids to USF's "The Glass Menagerie." If they love it, relax. To understand life's struggles at an early age means you're better equipped to manage them later on. If they hate it, you can always make it up with tickets to "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie"
P A devastating production of Williams' journey into the heart of a family gripped in denial and regret although the Tom Wingfield character needs more grit.
When • Reviewed Tuesday; continues through Sept. 3; plays at 2 and 8 p.m. in repertory with Shakespeare's "Richard III," "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Romeo and Juliet"; and Meredith Willson's "The Music Man" and Michael Frayn's "Noises Off!"
Where • Utah Shakespeare Festival, 351 W. Main St., Cedar City
Tickets • $22-$71 at 800-PLAYTIX or http://www.bard.org
Running time • Two hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission.
Also • The festival offers ticketed backstage tours and free daily literary and production seminars, play orientations, exhibits and green shows.