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Throwing Stones 

Living in glass

It's here. "The long delayed but always expected something we live for." That something is the transformation of the Smokebrush stage into a worthy habitat for an undisputed American classic, courtesy of the Colorado Actors' Theater.

The experience of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie begins the moment you walk into the theater and the ushers help escort you and your dropping jaw to your seat. Christian Medovich and Tom Studer have created one of the most stunning sets to grace local stages in recent memory. It's the kind of set that makes me want to move in. For $450 a month, I'd take it, though I suspect it's worth a great deal more.

The set recreates an alley in St. Louis, the home of the Wingfields, complete with red brick walls, cracking plaster, the soft-lit windows of an apartment building, and beautiful ironwork on the fire escape balcony and the door to the house. The interior walls are draped in ghostly white fabric giving a dustcover preserved feeling well suited to this memory play.

Eric Leary's design tends toward isolating specials and lingering fades to highlight a scene's mood. The opening scene, for example, begins with a tight, dim beam of light on Amanda and Laura, as if their image is being pulled back from a fading attic of the imagination. As the scene progresses, the spot brightens, and when Tom enters and lets his role shift from storyteller to a character in the story, the entire stage slowly fills with light.

That effect works. It's obvious, too much, perhaps, for those who don't want to notice the man behind the curtain, but artful enough to get away with it. What is less effective are the transitions from one part of the room to another, at times anticipating the blocking and stealing our focus. The long candlelight scene at the play's end, however, is beautiful and bold, risking the loss of detail to accurately depict the dreamlike scene between Laura and her gentleman caller.

The opening night performance of the play was solid, straightforward and flattering to the play's own legacy. A success by all measures, including the teary audience members who stood on their feet to cheer the inaugural performance of the new company. The four-person cast is solid throughout, clearly immersed in their roles. Their only fault may be a tendency to be overly immersed in their parts and their onstage exchanges to the point of keeping the audience feeling more outside than we hope for when we go to the theater. The onstage energy was intensely internalized, keeping us on the edge of our seats as we strained for a closer insight into these familiar characters.

Despite brother Tom's narration, sister Laura's critical transformation and the whirlwind of a fuss surrounding the arrival of the Gentleman Caller, the dominating force on the stage is Amanda, the mother of the Wingfield clan. Amanda is a commanding orator and an overbearing presence in the stagnant routine of her household. Susan d'Autremont yields quite a bit of that matronly power, however, swallowing her lines instead of hurling them at her children and swatting them back again when they ricochet off their callused skin.

Amanda sets the pace for the show, and director Gregory Wagrowski patiently lets the cast take their time slipping into gear. Action and dialogue are transformed into moments by stretching out a line's resolve or delaying the register of a character's response. As a result, Amanda never establishes the tone necessary to dominate the alley flat and the lingering remnants of her family, and the characters give in to the intoxicating dim lights and the melancholy air of the fiddle in the wings.

There's a delicacy in this production, reflecting the glass world of miniature animals where Laura is so comfortable. The tension in Williams' script comes from the stinging assaults thrown across the stage by Tom and Amanda as they push each other to the brink of change. Wagrowski's cast seems almost too sensitive, too concerned about throwing stones in a glass menagerie, when that dynamic threat of shattering one's world is just the energy the play needs.

The play hits its stride when the Gentleman Caller arrives. Michael Morgan's air of self-importance is beautifully honed, a wonderful portrait of the kind of man who leaves plenty of room in his mind for speculations about chewing gum fortunes. At times his lines are over-pronounced, but the habit fits his self-help character comfortably.

The scene between Jim and Laura offers the evening's payoff. When the bright lights go out, Elgin Kelley's Laura is finally able to emerge as the blooming character we eternally hope is waiting to emerge from her family's shadow. She makes the most of a part that relies considerably on reacting to others, and she brightens the candlelit stage with a Mona Lisa of a smile.

Tennessee Williams's poetic elegy to the everlasting regret left in time's wake is beautifully presented by C.A.T., and the production marks a welcome arrival.

-- owen@csindy.com

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