The fine line between directorial concept and gimmick is crossed far too often in the Old Globe's revival of "The Glass Menagerie."

The fine line between directorial concept and gimmick is crossed far too often in the Old Globe’s revival of “The Glass Menagerie.” Helmer Joe Calarco takes Tennessee Williams’ hints about nonrealistic staging as carte blanche (no “Streetcar” pun intended) for overliteral or downright jaw-dropping production and acting choices. San Diego bids farewell to the Cassius Carter Center Stage in what must be one of the least effective uses of the venerable arena space in its 40-year tenure.

“Menagerie” is, of course, the memory play of Tom Wingfield (Michael Simpson), the aspiring poet and sole support of Southern belle mother Amanda (Mare Winningham) and crippled sister Laura (Michele Federer). They vainly struggle for peaceful co-existence in a tiny prewar St. Louis apartment until his wanderlust trumps responsibility, prompting present-day recollections tinged with nostalgia and guilt. Freedom never comes without a price.

Calarco first decides the latter-day Tom must literally, physically reconnect to the surroundings, with an Expressionistic smash-cut jump into the space and a corny bit in which lifting or dropping the table skirt over Laura’s titular set of figurines prompts music to start and stop, like a 1940s version of the Clapper.

Simpson invests his odd opening pantomime with excessive emotion carried over into the flashback scenes, turning a dreamer who says he’s “boiling inside” into a lip-curling, muttering baby whose boiling is all too visible as he stumbles over his florid narration. This Tom evidences a sublimated desire for co-worker Jim (Kevin Isola), doubtless inspired by a too-literal identification of the character with gay scribe Williams.

Winningham’s Amanda is a Jekyll-and-Hyde conception. Surely, heeding the authorial hint of increased girlish vivacity greeting Laura’s “gentleman caller” doesn’t demand that she begin the play a stiff-necked Midwestern scold with little trace of drawl. Indeed, she sounds just like Eleanor Roosevelt as she reacts to Laura’s quitting business college with hurt vanity, not the desperation of a woman whose world is collapsing.

Once Winningham ratchets up the drawl and dons her antique dress, she soars (and starts picking up her cues). But the damage to the play’s fabric is done.

Keying Federer’s Laura to Williams’ mentally ill sister Rose — there’s no irony as she discusses her glass animals’ behavior; to her, they’re real –proves useful to make the girl more of a handful than usual. Despite her wavering limp, she’s a good foil to Isola, whose hearty confidence can’t disguise a fundamental insecurity eating away at his future.

But even the best scenes, notably Jim and Laura’s post-prandial voyage of discovery, are undone by the set.

Calarco has designer Michael Fagin plop a large circular platform at center, connected to the perimeter by a metal ramp (as a fire escape) and a wooden one opposite, with a step down. Besides cramping the living and dining areas on either side, expansive multilevel platforms are more appropriate to a Greek tragedy than a tiny apartment inhabited by an old lady and crippled girl.

Clomping up, across and down the construction, especially for poor Laura, becomes a cruel joke. (A variety of floor treatments could easily have differentiated the apartment’s areas on terra firma.) Meanwhile, the central circle is clearly a level and used as such, so references to sitting on the floor contradict the lucidity Federer and Isola otherwise bring to their scene within Chris Lee’s moody underlighting.

The Glass Menagerie

Cassius Carter Center Stage, San Diego; 237 seats; $59 top

Production

An Old Globe presentation of a play in two acts by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Joe Calarco.

Creative

Sets, Michael Fagin; costumes, Anne Kennedy; lighting, Chris Lee; sound, Lindsay Jones; stage manager, Diana Moser. Opened April 17, 2008; reviewed April 26; runs through May 18. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast

Amanda Wingfield - Mare Winningham Tom Wingfield - Michael Simpson Laura Wingfield - Michele Federer Jim O'Connor - Kevin Isola
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