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Humorous approach dilutes tragic aspects of `Menagerie'

The Glass Menagerie Play by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Nikos Psacharopoulos. In an interview conducted before his death in 1983, Tennessee Williams complained, ``Why doesn't anyone ever ask me about the comedy in my plays?''

Had Mr. Williams seen the most recent revival of his work, ``The Glass Menagerie'' at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (WTF), he might not have waxed so rhetorical. Director Nikos Psacharopoulos, artistic director of WTF, has staged this production of Williams's classic drama with more than a casual eye for the humor.

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As Williams's self-described ``memory play,'' ``The Glass Menagerie'' towers as one of the author's, and America's, most lyrical and accomplished dramas. It also stands as one of Williams's most nostalgic and intensely personal works. In an opus that portrayed women in an increasingly lurid, sensational light, the genteel, frustrated females of ``The Glass Menagerie'' (modeled on Williams's own mother and sister) are unique, both amusing and pathetic.

As a result, much of Williams's dialogue here glints with potential humor. Some of it lies just below the surface, ready for mining. As occasionally happens in revivals, the director has pushed an old text too far for new meaning. Here, Psacharopoulos has excessively tinkered with one of the dramatic linchpins of American theater. By favoring nostalgia and lyricism over reality, the subsequent production throttles the terror needed to hone the humor to razor sharpness. Potentially frightening character traits dissolve into mere quirkiness. The play becomes largely one dimensional, losing much of its tragic impact. This is particularly true in the key role of Amanda.

As one of Williams's seemingly endless varieties of disturbed females, Amanda has invited acting tours de force beginning with Laurette Taylor's initial Broadway performance in 1945. In the hands of the formidable Joanne Woodward -- creator of several acting tours de force herself -- Amanda steps down from her mythic, almost archetypal, proportions to join the other mortals peopling the stage.

An emotionally and financially impoverished woman raising her two children alone in a St. Louis tenement during the depression, Amanda lives on sugar-coated visions of her own Southern belle past as well as her equally illusory hopes for her children's futures. Her constant nagging of son Tom (John Sayles), a poet who works in a warehouse, and her incessant chatter about a ``gentleman caller'' for her shy, crippled daughter, Laura (Karen Allen), are humorous and wrenching.

Woodward's characterization is firmly on the side of the humor. But as skillful an actress as Woodward is, her fluttery Amanda is simply at odds with the play's irrefutably tragic denouement as well as the historical facts -- the emotional and mental difficulties that afflicted Williams's own mother.

While the dinner party scenes, in which the long-hoped-for gentleman caller (James Naughton) finally arrives, are genuinely funny, one can't help but feel these giddy moments are akin to living on credit. When the moment for real emotional payoff arrives, there is nothing of tangible tragic value to give. Amanda's seminal speech, in which she finally refers to her daughter as ``crippled,'' and which drives Tom out of the house following in the footsteps of his long-gone father, are hardly more portentou s than her previous tirades over cowlicks and table manners.

This diluted tragedy is not aided by a slack-jawed, mannered performance by John Sayles as Tom. An award-winning film director and screenwriter, Mr. Sayles seems uncomfortably out of his element here and incapable of conveying the desperation of a man who ``has to act without pity.'' Karen Allen relies on her usual repertoire of jerky, doll-like movements to create a gawky, wide-eyed Laura -- a girl insufficiently differentiated from Allen's portrayal of other adolescent women. James Naughto n's stolid performance of the somewhat dimwitted but earnest gentleman caller, a man who is amazed ``by the guy who invented chewing gum,'' is much more on target.

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Andrew Jackness's cheerfully floral-papered set is in keeping with the production's upbeat tone. Pat Collins's lighting is used as punctuation. But through the excessively warm glow of this revival one cannot help sensing this is not a world -- nor a production -- ``lit by lightning.'' Through Aug. 25.

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