Performance Network Theatre is returning to some familiar territory with its current staging of the Tennessee Williams' classic, The Glass Menagerie.
Touted as the "most personal" of the playwright's works, the play focuses on a family in St. Louis, MS., in the 1930s. Mother Amanda (Carla Milarch) is a faded Southern belle who dotes on her adult children, Tom (Kevin Young) and Laura (Emily Caffrey).
After Laura fails to complete business school, Amanda becomes concerned for her future and sets a plan in motion to find her daughter a "gentleman caller," a young man who would court Laura and eventually marry her. Tom volunteers his friend, Jim (Sebastian Gerstner), who, as it turns out, was the same boy Laura had a crush on in high school.
Menagerie boasts a fine cast, headed up by the Network's associate artistic director Milarch, who is performing for the first time in five years. And what a comeback it is; she provides a captivating performance from start to finish.
Amanda's humanity radiates such a degree of truthfulness that her final onstage moment with Laura is all the more heartbreaking. As Tom, Young is by turns likeable and sympathetic, and is even given a brief moment to showcase a very pleasant singing voice.
The believability of his relationship with sister Laura, while a bit uneven, nevertheless had some strikingly effective moments, as in his closing monologue. As Laura herself, Caffrey is physically right for the role, but underplays her vulernability. Laura is a self-described "cripple" and so socially awkward that she cannot deal with them without becoming physically ill — making her as delicate as the glass animals she so cherishes.
Director Tim Rhoze apparently chose to forego the slight limp that figures into most portrayals, leading the audience to wonder why she is so self-conscious about a non-existent condition. Caffrey does shine in some moments with Gerstner as her gentleman caller. Gerstner nails both the style of the period and the easy charm of the character in one swoop. His acting range is quite remarkable for such a young performer, moving easily between musical theater and dramas.
Since this is a "memory play," and described in the text as being "non-realistic," the director and set designer, Monika Essen, have chosen to place it in the middle of an old warehouse, with the understanding that it's where Tom is sharing his memories. There are also a number of abstract elements -- eating is pantomimed, as are Laura's interactions with her menagerie. Projected images appear, offering subtle commentary on the action, and a violinist is present onstage, providing an almost constant underscore.
While these two elements made sense on their own, the repetition of the same tune quickly grew monotonous. Nevertheless, this production is bound to excite audiences and make them look forward to a fresh new theater season.
The Glass Menagerie runs at Performance Network through Oct. 28. Performances are on Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; matinees on Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. For tickets call 734-663-0681 or visit www.performancenetwork.org.