The most important duty a theater artist ever has is that, when staging The Glass Menagerie, he or she must never get in the way of what Tennessee Williams created. In that regard, the Prime Stage Theatre production, directed by Rich Keitel, has succeeded.
That may sound like faint praise, but I assure you it's not. I've had the misfortune of sitting through too many productions where people have tried to "explore" the text in hopes of "improving" or "fixing" the play.
In a just world, such people would be shot.
But I drifted out of the Prime Stage production with my head swirling from what is the most beautiful meditation on the ineffable sadness of love ever written.
There they are, as always, trapped in that squalid St. Louis apartment: Amanda Wingfield and her two children, Tom and Laura, hoping to escape the brutality of living by clinging tightly to each other, which, as only Williams could write it, becomes the brutality they fear.
Keitel's production is clear-headed and direct, allowing us to hear the words Williams has written, the poetry he could create on stage better than any playwright before or since. It's odd, then, to say that maybe that clear-headedness becomes a limitation. These are three people swollen with emotional bruises, but we hardly ever see that.
A case in point is the sharp and intelligent portrayal of Amanda by Robin Walsh, a sublime actress of extraordinary command who is, perhaps, too in command. Her most powerful moments are the small, quiet ones when she shows us the exhausting cost of Amanda's love for her children. But when she blows up, it's so forceful and fierce you can't imagine how such a powerful woman could stay stuck in this life for so long.
Justin Fortunato, as Tom, does play that bruised despair with much skill, and when he gently pushes his final monologue out into the audience, it shatters your heart. And playing the pivotal after-dinner scene, Juliana Carr and John Steffenauer wisely never push the subtext, inviting us into this exquisite play. I can't imagine wanting to be anywhere else.
The Glass Menagerie continues through Sun., March 13. New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square. North Side. 412-394-3353 or www.primestage.com