“You know it don’t take much intelligence to get yourself into a nailed-up coffin, Laura. But who in hell ever got himself out of one without removing one nail?” asks sozzled Tom Wingfield of his pathologically shy sister. But the answer hangs right on the wall — and as the light focuses on the photo of Tom and Laura’s long-vanished father, we know Tom will soon abandon his mother and sister, leaving them nailed shut in the coffin of poverty and broken dreams. What’s more, Laura knows it, too.
Director Kevin Theis’ staging of Tennessee Williams’ first great theatrical success doesn’t muck about much with what we’ve come to expect from this memory play. No grand conceptual realignments are afoot, and the space in the studio at the Madison Street Theatre makes for some awkward entrances and exit. (Though Michael Lasswell’s set also adroitly captures the suffocating confines. One expects that tableful of glass figurines to tumble every time somebody whips off a coat.) But the relationship between Christian Gray’s Tom and Zoe Palko’s Laura offers insights into the real emotional heart of the play that are sometimes glossed over in favor of The Amanda Wingfield Show.
Tom and Laura don’t have much dialogue — who can get a word in edgewise with a mother like Amanda sucking the oxygen out of the room? But in Theis’ production for Oak Park Festival Theatre, their silences and glances illuminate great mutual sympathy. And the performances by Palko and Gray (whose balance of acid and anguish makes him the most compelling Tom Wingfield I’ve yet seen) bring out the central tragedy of Williams’ play and his life — the inability, or unwillingness, of a loving but restless brother to protect a fragile sister. (Williams’ own older sister, Rose, the model for Laura, was lobotomized as a young woman and spent the rest of her life institutionalized.)
Belinda Bremner’s take on Amanda is just this side of brassy, but that demeanor raises the intriguing question as to whether Amanda really did have a gracious-southern-belle upbringing, complete with those legendary “17 gentlemen callers.” And the brass also shows some hints of finer mettle. Amanda tries to scrape up money as the Depression-era poverty (a connection that makes this play uncomfortably au courant) closes in, selling magazine subscriptions over the phone. The way Bremner reacts to each of her customers’ health maladies with a drawn-out “Horrors!” and a cluck of forced sympathy wins laughs — but also shows us that there is a steel spine underneath the fluttery mannerisms. Bremner’s Amanda works the nerves — there’s a reason her husband left, after all — but she’s also nervy.
The second-act encounter between Laura and Jim, the longed-for gentleman caller Amanda imagines will save her daughter, offers its own luminosity. Luke Couzens plays Jim as a man who hasn’t quite surrendered to his own mediocrity yet, but his cheerful advice to Laura comes from a place almost as dark and shadowy as the candlelit room they share. And as Tom’s final speech makes clear, there are some memories that can never be interred through time and distance.
When: Through Nov. 13
Where: Madison Street Theatre, 1010 W. Madison St., Oak Park
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Tickets: $25 at 708-445-4440 or oakparkfestival.com