Through a glass, sadly : Ensemble Theatre Company stages Tennessee Williams’ classic ‘The Glass Menagerie’

Joe Delafield as Tom; Sara Botsford as his mother, Amanda; and Erin Pineda as Laura, Amanda's daughter and Tom's older sister. DAVID BAZEMORE PHOTOS
Joe Delafield as Tom; Sara Botsford as his mother, Amanda; and Erin Pineda as Laura, Amanda’s daughter and Tom’s older sister.
DAVID BAZEMORE PHOTOS

First thoughts upon entering the Alhecama Theatre for this production of “The Glass Menagerie” — has the stage ever contained this much depth? By its use of sliding doors, three levels, and some beautiful floor lighting, we get taken back to the dark and dank St. Louis tenement where playwright Tennessee Williams exorcised the ghosts of his past and reincarnated them as unforgettable characters.

On walks Tom Wingfield, played by Joe Delafield. He stands outside the tenement he shares with his mother and sister, lights a cigarette and leans against the wall, looking like the anti-hero in a film noir. But he’s no gumshoe, and his staccato Southern accent — young, fast, clipped, like George W. Bush, but with 10 times the vocabulary — lays out the rules of the play: Memory, spirits, exaggerations. And then there are the things that we realize he is not telling us about: shame, guilt, betrayal, and regret.

Joel J. Gelman, left, as the "Gentleman Caller" and Erin Pineda as Laura.
Joel J. Gelman, left, as the “Gentleman Caller” and Erin Pineda as Laura.
Director Jonathan Fox digs out a lot of the humor of the play, which often gets submerged under dreamy gauze and the foreknowledge of events. As Williams himself used to laugh at unexpected moments in the play when he was in the audience, he’d have been at home in Saturday’s opening night audience. And much was funny — which is either fully intentional or a result on the Tennessee Williams-ization of our culture, where the Blanche DuBois’ of this world have nothing on the people seen every night on reality shows.

But Amanda Wingfield (Sara Botsford) is no dreamy matriarch. She is still full of vitality and an enthusiasm that wants her two offspring to succeed where her husband didn’t. (He left them, with only a photograph portrait to remind them.) Her energy helps her mask the reality of Laura (Erin Pineda), who is crippled by shyness, immaturity and a “slight defect” in her foot. Amanda fears she will be looking after Laura for the rest of her life, and so her desire to manifest a “gentleman caller” (the play’s original title) for Laura is not as silly as it sounds.

Tom has also found himself in a dead-end job, with dreams of becoming a writer thwarted by his alcoholic escapism and his lack of any place to work on that masterpiece. The tearing of a page from Tom’s typewriter is one of the more violent acts in the play. To escape would be both freeing and damning.

Director Fox sees where Tom is coming from, and does bend his cast toward making the case. Life with Amanda would be unbearable, and how does one solve a problem like Laura? “The Glass Menagerie” becomes Laura’s play in its second half, with a promising “gentleman caller” turning up. Joel J. Gelman plays him as the failed high school star, still holding onto those magical days and surrounding himself with courses in public speaking.

Laura has had a crush on him since high school and at first can barely be in the same room as him, overwhelmed by shyness. Tom’s refusal to pay the electricity bill leaves the following scenes lit by candles, and they are as sweet as they are gut-wrenching.

Saturday’s performance got a lot of its energy from its two male actors. Mr. Delafield plays Tom as sarcastic, repressed, mean and only repentant at the end. His choked-up final speech comes as a surprise, compared to his elated exit. Gelman reveals his character’s motives slowly, and its his likability that allows us to feel sorry for, not angry at him.

Ms. Botsford’s Amanda is nearly there. Under Fox she has the oppressive side down, but there was also a lot of surface to this tension. Ms. Botsford gives us all the reasons why Tom would want to leave Amanda, but not enough of the reasons why he finds it hard to do so for so long. Not yet, anyway. As Laura, Erin Pineda plays the character several different ways, which makes her hard to grasp. At some times she is too knowing, in others too scared of her mother. There is not enough sense of the lived history, but as above … not yet.

Fox has done a great job, however, of revitalizing a classic and erasing some of the clichés. And it is a worthy night out at the theater, with the tiny stage being used to its utmost. One day, we realize, the Alhecama will also be a memory, as will all of this.

‘THE GLASS MENAGERIE’
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; through May 2
Where: Alhecama Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara St.
Cost: $29 to $48
Information: ensembletheatre.com or 965-5400

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