Through a Glass Darkly

glass joan marcus article Through a Glass Darkly The Glass Menagerie, which debuted on Broadway 55 years ago today, was Tennessee Williams’ first great success as a playwright. The excellent revival that opened Off Broadway on March 5 at the Laura Pels Theatre, starring Judith Ivey as a complex, human and haunting Amanda Wingfield, strips away all those intervening years of TV movies and high-school English-class lessons to deliver a gritty, emotional and deeply moving evening of theater.

The narrator of this memory play is Tom Wingfield, a warehouse worker who longs to be a writer and is typically seen as a stand-in for Williams. The memory is of a time late in the Depression, when Tom (Patch Darragh) lived in a tenement apartment in St. Louis with his mother, Amanda, a faded Southern belle turned overbearing mother, and his sister, Laura (Keira Keeley), who suffers from a disabled leg and an even more debilitating self-doubt.

Director Gordon Edelstein has also stripped away much of the stage direction Williams lays out in the script. Rather than opening with Tom (Patch Darragh) walking into the old, cramped apartment, the curtain rises on him alone in a grim hotel room, writing and reading his play, between sips of whiskey. He’s not entering the memory but instead telling us about it. “I am the opposite of a stage magician,” Tom famously says. “He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” The play then shifts to the past with Ms. Ivey’s breathtaking entrance, suddenly illuminated and speaking from behind a scrim, almost literally the incarnation of memory.

Amanda is an overbearing nag from those first moments onstage, filled with instructions on how to eat, how to chew, how to drink coffee, when to wear a muffler; it’s easy to see how Tom—a grown man constantly henpecked by his mother—finds it intolerable to live with her. She is narcissistic and delusional—prattling on and on about her gentleman-caller-filled youth, refusing to allow the word “crippled” to be used to describe Laura—and in Ms. Ivey’s portrayal, it’s also clear that she’s loving and dedicated, if misguidedly so, toward her children. She’s had a tough life—her husband left, presumably driven away, 16 years earlier—but she determinedly soldiers on, for herself and for them.

Tom finally brings home a gentleman caller for Laura, his coworker Jim O’Connor (Michael Mosley). The long, candle-lit second act—in which Jim, a decent guy, first slowly brings Laura out of her shell and then unintentionally crushes her, and her mother, when he reveals he’s already engaged to be married—is both beautiful and devastating. By the time the audience leaves, we’ve been wounded, too.

There’s good news for those who found Urinetown an insufficiently serious examination of the perils of water-resource mismanagement. A Cool in the Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick, which opened March 4 at Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharpe Theater, is, amazingly, a passionate message play about the virtues of tap water and the depredations of water bottlers.

The play nominally centers on a middle-class black family in suburban Maryland, a God-fearing mother and her skeptical daughter, who lost three generations of men when they drowned while on a trip home to Mississippi when Katrina hit. The two women have taken in a boarder—a young Ethiopian evangelical who has come to the United States to study either water management or theology.

But the main character is water. There are many things water can do, and they all happen to these characters: It can kill people, like those who drowned; purify people, like born-again Christians baptized in pretty creeks; save people, like African villagers blessed with their first small dam; and displace people, like African villagers whose communities were flooded by World Bank–funded mega-dams.

But what it can’t seem to do, at least not in Kia Corthron’s tedious, sprawling play, is create particularly compelling characters—they’re all too busy sermonizing (and not just the minister-ecologist) to seem real or convincing—or a particularly interesting story. It is somehow metaphorical, I’m sure, that as it started to drizzle on my way back to the subway, I realized I’d left my umbrella in the theater.

joxfeld@observer.com