The back wall of Rob Howell's poetic dreamspace of a set is painted blue, but that's not all that's different about Sam Mendes' new staging of "The Glass Menagerie." Employing some of the scenic projections indicated in the script, the evening lays bare Williams' play with the same fervor with which Ben Chaplin's Tom lifts the dropcloths from the furniture in his opening speech.

The back wall of Rob Howell’s poetic dreamspace of a set is painted blue, but that’s not all that’s different about Sam Mendes’ new staging of “The Glass Menagerie.” Employing some (though by no means all) of the scenic projections indicated in the script, as well as a startlingly youthful quartet of actors headed by Zoe Wanamaker as Amanda, the evening lays bare Williams’ play with the same fervor with which Ben Chaplin’s Tom lifts the dropcloths from the furniture in his opening speech.

Like Tom, Mendes has no patience for the musty reminders of history — the accretions of performance legend, if you will — that cling to this play in particular: Howell’s catwalk-ringed design, shimmeringly lit by David Hersey, tells you that from the start, as does a plaintive score by Jason Carr whose contemporary feel dips in and out of the strains of the Paradise dance hall.

In its aural and visual aspects alone (the excellent sound designer is Scott Myers), this “Glass Menagerie” may not be everyone’s idea of the play 50 years on, but chances are it will make you think about, and feel, its import as never before.

The director’s overriding innovation has to do with age: This is the first “Menagerie” in memory to cast actors roughly the same age as the characters. The effect is to amplify, without in any way vulgarizing, the sexual undercurrents of a play in which, more than ever, Williams seems to spread his sorrowful, compassionate voice among all four characters, not just his putative alter ego, Tom.

Wanamaker, accordingly, is no desperate old lady, but a 40-something scold embittered by abandonment in her sexual prime some 16 years before by a man she fell in love with because of his looks.

When the Gentleman Caller (Mark Dexter) belatedly announces his engagement, this Amanda’s punctured “Ohhhh” comes from a feeling that she has been betrayed alongside her crippled daughter, Laura (Claire Skinner). Her elaborate retrieval of her Southern belle self is snapped back to the tenement reality of her spinsterish present: Seldom has Amanda’s climactic assessment, “Things have a way of turning out so badly,” sounded at once so matter-of-fact and so piercing. This is a woman “bewildered by life,” as she puts it, and also by erotic loss, for whom physical contact is limited to combing her son’s hair.

An unfortunate wig aside (the effect makes a frump out of a woman obsessed by appearance), Wanamaker is quietly revealing throughout. She finds repeated comedy in Amanda’s skill as a self-dramatist, so that her spasms of rage — “an unmarried sister who’s crippled and has no job!” she says of Laura to Tom, having earlier warned the household not to “say crippled, ever” — cut like a razor from which Tom, as his closing speech reminds us, continues to bleed.

The family’s protector and its destroyer, she lives suspended between panic and coquetry, and Wanamaker’s sad, expressive eyes often well up with tears communicating the urgency that drives Amanda on. Indeed, the actress is at her most moving wordlessly conveying amazement that one of her telephone sales pitches has actually worked; she’s both fearless and fearful, noble and absurd.

As Laura, Skinner is less successful. Perhaps she is simply confined by the parameters of a part whose trajectory from withdrawal through to radiance and on to a final scream is by now so familiar that it leaves no room for surprise. Whatever the reason, the performance remains oddly blank, that clumping leg notwithstanding. Like Ophelia, Laura may be one of literature’s sufferes who comes so thoroughly signposted that few actresses can offer her up anew.

The two men, by contrast, approach their roles as freshly as Wanamaker, and will no doubt match her stage authority as the run proceeds. Dexter almost overdoes the Gentleman Caller’s Jimmy Stewart-ish bonhomie, but he’s also intriguingly smug and narcissistic in a way I’ve never seen played before. Even if he weren’t engaged, this Jim looks a likely candidate to leave Laura tending her glass figurines while he preens before the mirror.

There’s something unfeeling, too, about the supposed charm of a man busy lecturing Laura on “the power of love” when she is clearly reeling from exactly that. He’s a Gatsbyesque goofball who is every bit as self-absorbed, in his own way, as the Amanda prattling ceaselessly at him.

It is the slight, dark-featured Chaplin (the actor looks like a younger Peter Gallagher), though, who gives the production its real wrench, and his performance may be the most controversial to “Menagerie” buffs. At first, he’s disconcertingly offhand, coming at Tom’s poetry from outside rather than within, and clamping down the boiling emotions that he later confesses to Jim. (Some of the apparent hesitancy is no doubt due to first-night nerves.)

But listen to his voice drop to a hush at first mention of Laura, and you see where the actor is heading — to a full reading of “Menagerie” as an authorial catharsis that leaves Tom, and the audience, bruised.

“I tried to leave you behind me,” Tom says in his closing soliloquy, even as his choked voice makes clear that many years later he cannot. Memory doesn’t heal in Mendes’ “Menagerie”; it merely enlarges the ache of a family bound by dreams of escape whose sole salvation lies in the poetic reiteration of pain.

The Glass Menagerie

Donmar Warehouse, London; 252 seats; $19 ($30) top

Production

A Donmar Warehouse production of the play in two acts by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Sam Mendes.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Rob Howell; lighting, David Hersey; music, Jason Carr; sound, Scott Myers. Opened, reviewed Sept. 13, 1995. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast

Cast: Zoe Wanamaker (Amanda Wingfield), Ben Chaplin (Tom Wingfield), Claire Skinner (Laura Wingfield), Mark Dexter (The Gentleman Caller).
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