Most years, the last full week before Christmas is quiet — the best-of-the-year lists are already done, and the holiday perennials are up and running. Steppenwolf, which is not about to program "The Gift of the Magi," sometimes opens a defiantly intense drama on these dark nights, just 'cause. But in general, you have time to decorate the holiday tree.
Not this year. This year, the big shows opened in rapid succession on consecutive nights. There was "War Horse," a thrilling feat of theatrical storytelling that you should not miss. The next night came "The Book of Mormon," a hilarious show with a fine Chicago production, thanks in no small part to the young actor Ben Platt whose Elder Cunningham made that outre role yet sweeter and funnier, to the benefit on the whole show. At the other end of the theatrical food-chain (economically speaking) came the Den Theatre's intense revival of Brian Friel's haunting "Faith Healer," a reprise of a production first staged 18 years ago with exactly the same cast, and the stellar performances only had deepened with time.
The Mary-Arrchie Theatre's production of "The Glass Menagerie" had already opened, but, due to the aforementioned pileup of openings, I finally made it last Friday, right under the Christmas wire. I ducked out on a family gathering, actually, cursing under my breath halfway to the theater.
I mean, who, on Dec. 21, wants to see "The Glass Menagerie?" Again?
This Tennessee Williams drama is frequently produced (often several times a year in Chicago) due to its relative simplicity and classic status, and the desire of many actors to play one of these famous roles at some point in their career, even if that means they have to produce it themselves. Anyone who has ever hung around a high school or college theater department has seen enough scene work from this piece to never want to again see poor, crippled Laura (she with the overbearing mom and the talky, profligate bro') blow out another darn candle. Most great plays have high failure rates, but a lousy production of "The Glass Menagerie" can rapidly devolve into unconscious parody. Surely, there is no more fragile script. Often, you feel as if you just cannot sit through another production of this play, however good.
And yet ... in the Chicago theater, you just never know. Excellence is unpredictable and certainly not constrained either by calendar or apparent overexposure.
The Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company production of "The Glass Menagerie," directed by Hans Fleischmann, who also plays the role of Tom, turns out to be a great "Glass Menagerie," just as David Cromer's "Our Town," currently blowing away Boston after running for months off-Broadway, was a great "Our Town." That 2008 Cromer production of the Thornton Wilder classic was in my mind a lot Friday night. There were striking similarities, beginning with the fact that both of these productions represent revisionist Chicago takes on classic American dramas that few thought they needed to see again. Until they saw they were wrong.
"Our Town" was staged in the basement of the Chopin Theatre, a space replete with pillars. "The Glass Menagerie" is staged in Mary-Arrchie's down-and-dirty, second-floor walk-up. You won't feel you're anywhere except above a convenience store on Chicago's North Side. One of Cromer's cleverest tricks in "Our Town" was to take the role of the narrator and greatly intensify that character's relationship with the audience, communicating far more directly and colloquially and deeply than is usual. That is precisely what Fleischmann achieves with Williams' Tom: It feels as if he talks to you as Tom has never talked to you before. Cromer made it clear that "Our Town" is not about Grover's Corners but about us, as we float, or crawl, like it or not, toward death. That is precisely what Fleischmann achieves with "The Glass Menagerie": He extends the play beyond the lot of these particular characters into one's own life.
Both of these directors also figured out that both of these dramas are about the weight of time. Since they both have narrators, both played in these productions by the director, they beg the question of the moment of the actual narration. From whence is it coming? Then? Now? It's enough to give you shivers. Both Fleischmann and Cromer knew how to honor these scripts and yet constantly flash backward and forward in time, deftly playing with out familiarity with the scripts. There are few more exquisite things in the theater than knowing the fate of a character and then experiencing that character's unknowing action alongside them (Friel, the author of "Faith Healer," is a master at that particular trick, as fans of "Dancing at Lughnasa" well know). In both of these great Chicago productions, you felt terrified for what might happen to these pathetically striving characters, just as you feel terrified for what might happen — heck, what will happen — to you.
Will "The Glass Menagerie" enjoy the kind of international success that came the way of "Our Town"? Who knows? The latter play is, perhaps, more marketable than the former. The timing is different. Many things are different. But "Our Town" was never better than in those first weeks in Chicago. In the case of "The Glass Menagerie," the equivalent of that moment is right now.
When: Through Jan. 20
Where: Angel Island, 735 W. Sheridan Road
Tickets: $15-$25; 773-871-0442 or maryarrchie.comCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun