Upstream Theatre’s ‘Glass Menagerie’ is vibrant, richly textured

Linda Kennedy and Sydney Frazure in a scene from “The Glass Menagerie.”
Linda Kennedy and Sydney Frazure in a scene from “The Glass Menagerie.” Upstream Theatre

Let’s be honest. Have you ever seen a production of “The Glass Menagerie” that really did it justice?

Look no further. Upstream Theatre’s latest challenge is a lovingly crafted version of Tennessee William’s “memory play” that features a non-traditional ensemble.

This lyrical interpretation by director Philip Beam is a vibrant, richly textured production propelled by the power of its four performances.

Williams wrote the play in 1944. It introduced him as a major playwright. Since then, much has been made of the autobiographical details, which makes the production even more wistful.

The lead character Amanda, a woman disappointed in life, still clings to delusions of grandeur and dreams of a better future for her children. She is based on his mother Edwina, a minister’s daughter and faded Southern belle mired in the past.

Linda Kennedy imbues her with a strength we don’t often see, but also with an exasperation that is understandable. When she dolls up in a former cotillion outfit, it is sad and desperate.

She seeks a husband for Laura and a better income for Tom. Her grown children have not succeeded like she intended.

J. Samuel Davis, who ordinarily could be a peer, plays her son Tom, and I find him mesmerizing in every role he plays. So I accepted him as our narrator, a grizzled guy looking back, as well as the younger man with literary illusions grounded by his soul-sucking factory job, just waiting to break free of responsibilities at home.

His fragile sister Laura, based on Williams’ sister Rose, is too shy to attend her business classes and find a husband. Sydney Frasure, confined to a wheelchair, brings out the poignancy and struggles of the girl retreating from life to tend to her glass animals. She allows us look at the character in a heartbreaking, not pathetic, way.

Tom dotes on her, and brings a friend home from work for dinner. This sets Laura in a tizzy and Amanda putting on airs.

Jason Contini brings a considerable depth and charm to The Gentleman Caller, Jim, a big deal in his teen years who hasn’t had the breaks he sought in adulthood. He is quite tender with Rose, showing compassion learned through the hard knocks of life, not reacting with pity.

The bittersweet nature of the story is enhanced through the music played by pianist extraordinaire Joe Dreyer. You can close your eyes and go back decades, imagining the dance hall music wafting through the Williams’ tenement apartment.

The set by Michael Heil is striking, with vintage decor setting the mood. Laura Hanson’s costumes evoke a bygone post-Depression pre-World War II era. Steve Carmichael’s lighting captures the drama.

Williams’ delicate balance of loss and hope mark his writing and this cast brings out the poetry of his words, a fitting tribute to one of our literary giants.

The fact that he was shaped during his formative years in St. Louis permeates the work, creating another layer entirely.

Whether you have seen this play in numerous revivals or it’s your first time, the Wingfield family will resonate with you.

"The Glass Menagerie"

  • Who: Upstream Theater
  • When: 8 p.m. May 12-14; 2 p.m. May 15
  • Where: Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 N. Grand at Olive
  • Box Office: 314-669-6382
  • www.upstreamtheater.org