Judith Ivey and Keira Keeley are

There's a sad, lonely and claustrophobic quality to the Long Wharf Theater's "The Glass Menagerie."

There’s an especially sad, lonely and claustrophobic quality to the Long Wharf Theater’s revelatory production of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.” It starts when Tom walks through the door, not of the Depression-era family apartment in St. Louis he shared years ago with his mother and sister but rather that of a dingy hotel room where he is off on his own, attempting to become a writer — and his own man.

In Gordon Edelstein’s production of the familiar work, Tom (Patch Darragh) reclaims ownership of the play — however passively — from the force of nature that is his mother Amanda Wingfield (Judith Ivey). It becomes a private exorcism that plays out in this disturbing dream of an interpretation, where powerful ghosts from the past are conjured, confronted and finally released as art.

After a scene-setting prologue in which writer Tom rallies the strength to summon their spirits, Amanda and his sister Laura (Keira Keeley) step from Tom’s memory and literally walk into his hotel room, taking over the space and his story.

Initially, one wonders if the concept can be sustained; then one becomes intrigued and amazed by how well it is. Helmer Edelstein beautifully renders this dual reality in a production that shows how the past still pulls at the present in the mind of a man not at peace.

In this version, Darragh’s Tom is less the misunderstood poet than the stunted son, awkwardly grappling with his ineffectiveness, frustrations and personal secrets. But as the play progresses, he becomes emboldened, finally breaking free from his family to save — and find — himself.

Ivey’s Amanda is rightfully annoying, unnerving and desperate. But she also brings a Southern warmth, humor and practicality to the role, making this Amanda grounded in her own way even as she mixes delusions with dreams.

Keeley has the required fragility for Laura and even displays hints at a deeper psychosis beyond merely being “terribly shy.” Her tentative blooming in the scene with “gentleman caller” Jim (Josh Charles) is heartwarming and ultimately heartbreaking.

Charles is more than the snappy glad-hander, showing the cracks in his own confidence, especially when he realizes the unintended devastation he has caused by opening up to Laura.

That scene is beautifully presented by candlelight, a directorial affectation that rarely translates to audience satisfaction. But on Long Wharf’s modest thrust stage, the effect casts a flickering spell. Jennifer Tipton’s subtle lighting matches Michael Yeargan’s evocative set design, with both reflecting the faded intimacy of memory. Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes are also appropriate to the production’s muted palette.

The climactic confrontation between Amanda and Tom ends here with the slam of the hotel room door, with Amanda exiting instead of Tom. It’s a bracing reversal that in a theatrical instant completes Tom’s — as well as Williams’ — journey of the mind and soul. It comes with a poignant farewell from a newfound poet and a final breath across those candles.

The Glass Menagerie

Long Wharf Theater, New Haven, Conn.; 487 seats; $62 top

Production

A Long Wharf Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Gordon Edelstein.

Creative

Sets, Michael Yeargan; costumes, Martin Pakledinaz; lighting, Jennifer Tipton; sound, David Budries; production stage manager, Monica A. Cuoco. Opened, reviewed May 20, 2009. Runs through June 7. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast

Amanda - Judith Ivey Tom - Patch Darragh Laura - Keira Keeley Jim - Josh Charles
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