Tennessee Williams is one of the few real proofs we have that life has improved in the last fifty years. He viewed the world through a lens of high Freudianism where not too many people could expect to escape a good warping from their repressed sexuality. When he yoked these emotional cripples to genteel southern poverty, he got some pretty riveting stuff back in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, but today you can be uncomfortably aware that most of his characters' problems could be solved by a few credit cards and access to reliable birth control.

Dated though his works sometimes seem, he was a brilliant playwright, and The Glass Menagerie at the Purple Rose is a reminder of what pure beauty can be wrought by four good actors and some floor space.

Menagerie is an American classic about a family on the way down. Two grown children and their mother are slowly going insane cooped up in a St. Louis tenement. The mother, Amanda (Michelle Mountain), lives in a dream world of dance cards, cotillions, and gentlemen callers, and her pathologically shy daughter, Laura (Molly Thomas), copes by counting and polishing her glass animal collection. Son Tom (Tom Whalen) is the only one who can hold a job, but it's menial, soul-killing factory labor, as he and his mother remind each other every few minutes or so, to make sure he doesn't escape the family curse of hopelessness.

Maybe it's just me, but I always see political undertones in this breakout early play by Williams (it premiered in 1944) that seemed to disappear in his later works. In a world that gave women of a certain class very few options, a woman's ability to charm "gentleman callers" was not so much harmless southern fluff as a sound business plan. Amanda's mounting panic over her daughter's shrinking, manless world is not, Williams seems to suggest, entirely unjustified. I like the way Michelle Mountain does Amanda, as wily, fun, and loopy, until she's absolutely cornered. Molly Thomas gives dignity to the quiet, simple Laura. Tom Whalen, who must both play Tom Wingfield as a young man and look back and narrate the events from a distance, does it with light, ironic gallantry in counterpoint to the quiet claustrophobia of female existence. Ryan Carlson, the gentleman caller, who is summoned to a dinner party from hell, miraculously pulls a fully formed character out of a script that almost insists he be a cardboard cutout.

It's a fresh and original classic, running through Saturday, December 17.

[Review published December 2005]