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Sunday, December 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 35.0° F  Fog/Mist
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American Players Theatre finds new heartbreak in The Glass Menagerie
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Marcus Truschinski, Darragh Kennan, Susan Shunk and Sarah Day in <i>The Glass Menagerie</i> by American Players Theatre.
Marcus Truschinski, Darragh Kennan, Susan Shunk and Sarah Day in The Glass Menagerie by American Players Theatre.
Credit:Zane Williams

Director Aaron Posner doesn't let the challenges of staging a storied play intimidate him in the new American Players Theatre production of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. In the program notes, he likens his approach to how he'd react to spotting a famous person: "Be open to them, but be your best self, and meet them on their terms and your terms simultaneously."

In this, he succeeds. APT's production is both old and new at the same time, and will likely break your heart, no matter how many times you've read or seen Williams' classic.

The stage in the indoor Touchstone Theater is sparse -- a few pieces of fine furniture in an apartment that feels otherwise empty. On the floor are a record player and a precious collection of glass animals. It's clear the Wingfields don't own much, but their belongings hint at an affluent past. Their dim present unfolds below the stage's focal point: a larger-than-life portrait of the husband and father who left them behind. The father, though not a physical character in the play, is ever-present through his hovering image. He looms darkly handsome and smirking cockily.

Tom Wingfield, played by Darragh Kennan, is both narrator and brother, removing and replacing his eyeglasses to signify transitions between roles. While this act is perhaps superfluous, it is the moments when Tom inhabits both at the same time that are most captivating. In an intense conversation with his mother, Amanda Wingfield, played by APT veteran Sarah Day, Tom slips out from his seat and begins pacing the floor, leaving her to beg and berate an empty chair.

This technique is used throughout the production, forcing the audience to think back to Tom's opening lines. He explains to the audience that this is a "memory play," and warns that it will be both sentimental and unrealistic, as memories often are. As a narrator of his own memory and a character within it, seeing Tom in these dual positions feels natural.

While none of the cast disappoint, the biggest surprise of the show is Marcus Truschinski's portrayal of enthusiastic Jim O'Connor, the unwitting gentleman caller. It's easy to slack off and play Jim two-dimensionally, but Truschinski adds depth to the role. His facial expressions are big and cartoonish, yet when he realizes what harm has come from his ebullience, his remorse is palpable. Susan Shunk's Laura Wingfield, the sister, also fulfills the potential of her role, and her onstage chemistry with Truschinski makes the ensuing heartbreak all the more potent. As aging Southern belle Amanda, Sarah Day makes desperation clear: She's getting by with very little, yet fighting to keep her dignity.

On opening night, the full house offered a standing ovation, and many theatergoers wiped tears from their eyes. I expect great things from APT, and with The Glass Menagerie, they deliver yet again.

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