The current staging of Tennessee Williams’ classic “The Glass Menagerie” by San Francisco’s African-American Shakespeare Company focuses on how people of color lived in the U.S. during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Director Monica White Ndounau finds many similarities between the well-heeled Black and white communities of the time and sees the act of transferring from a white to a Black canvas as a conversation with Williams — a “call and response of sorts.”
“The Glass Menagerie” is based on Williams’ own dysfunctional family. The Wingfield family of the play is helmed by Amanda (Layce Lynne Kieu), an imperious former southern belle. The family also includes her bright, frustrated son Tom (Elijah Jalil Paz Fisher) and her lonely, disabled daughter Laura (Mars Holscher), who is looking for love.
The excellent cast not only reshapes the play to fit the shifted parameters, it also brings a special vibrancy to the characters. Amanda colors her past beaux, cotillions and amorous adventures with passion, she dotes on Laura with great warmth, and becomes an all-out flirt with Jim (Justin P. Lopez), the kindly gentleman caller.
Laura, often portrayed as submissive and quiet, is no shrinking violet, either. She stands up to her mother. And she knows exactly when her hopes for romance die.
The play rides airily between realism and fantasy, packed with psychological elements: the close relationship between Laura and Tom; the ongoing quarrel between Amanda and Tom; the fierce family pride in being outsiders in conflict with the need to fit in.
The acting is at times uneven, but Fisher as narrator ties everything together neatly and puts the dramatic focus where it belongs.
Peter Callender’s set design and Nia Jacob’s costumes depict a family in some distress —yet they are sure to be attired in formal dress for the gentleman caller’s visit. Kevin Myrick’s lighting design picks up on the darkness of the play; at the same time, it keeps a shine on Laura‘s beloved menagerie throughout the show.
All in all, this vivid production brings a freshness and a new slant to a play that can seem outdated.
African-American Shakespeare Company’s “The Glass Menagerie” continues through March 26 at Marines Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$75. Visit CityBoxOffice.com.