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Eugene Weekly : Theater : 2.15.07

A Story With Complications

Willamette Rep shines with Glass Menagerie

BY AARON RAGAN-FORE

Willamette Repertory Theatre's new production of The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams' beloved "memory play," combines stellar direction and nuanced acting to produce a complex standout in the Eugene theater scene.

Tom (Cameron Carlisle) faces off with Amanda (Michelle Morain). Photo by Cliff Coles

In Depression-era St. Louis, moody poet Tom Wingfield slaves daily in a warehouse to support shy sister Laura and overbearing mother Amanda in the absence of a father who abandoned his family. Laura possesses a minor limp, and the inner handicap of her social anxiety has prevented Laura from attracting male attention. Amanda works tirelessly to secure a "gentleman caller" for Laura, seeking in matrimony not only a cure for the family's financial situation but a reconnection to the heady days of her own Mississippi youth, when the beaus, she says, were wont to line up on her doorstep. When Tom finally brings home a coworker to introduce to his sister, the family imbues the visit with a forceful, last-ditch hope for domestic happiness.

Amanda Wingfield is one of the great grandes dames of American theater, leading to far too many underqualified actresses giving the character a shot and a predictable surfeit of melodramatic, faux-antebellum matriarchs. Pleasantly, veteran actress Michelle Morain provides a sensitivity and believability often pointedly missing from the role. The love for her children that supposedly drives the character is genuinely present in Morain's interpretation. In addition, this expatriate southerner enjoyed Morain's flawlessly genteel, biting Deep South accent and bearing, character traits that are often overacted.

Morain is ably matched by a thoughtful cast of proficient actors, including Cameron Carlisle as the tortured Tom and Kimberly Bates as a suitably retiring Laura. Bates succeeds in a nuanced version of a character often relegated to one-note acting, providing depth and context for a realistic and affecting sibling dynamic with Carlisle.

William Mark Hulings may have the most difficult job on stage. As a central symbolic figure, the much hoped-for gentleman caller, Hulings ably treads the line between iconic fantasy and unheeding reality. Hulings' expressive and affable Jim O'Connor lends a heartbreakingly earnest resonance to his scene with Bates, who demonstrates an admirable range portraying the emotions of a young woman beginning to believe once again in a long-dormant dream.

Pat Patton's deft direction locates the action in a specific time and place, convincingly recreating the mores and motivations of prewar America. It's a concrete location for the tale's characters and passions, but with all the tangibility and decisiveness of a long-ago memory.

"In these trying times we live in, all that we have to cling to is — each other," Amanda clucks at one point. That simple and caring sentiment, however, is betrayed by one of her later lines: "You can't have a story without complications." Willamette Rep's The Glass Menagerie is a satisfying tale of the promise of happiness, placed for a brief moment within reach of its protagonists' grasps, making those inevitable complications all the crueler and more poignant. — Aaron Ragan-Fore

The Glass Menagerie continues at the Willamette Rep Feb. 15-18 & 22-25. For tickets, call 682-5000. $12-$30.