The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, directed by Chris Abraham, with Rosemary Dunsmore, Damien Atkins, Michelle Monteith and Seann Gallagher. Presented by CanStage (26 Berkeley). Previews Monday to Wednesday (January 10-12), opens January 13 and runs to February 26, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday 1:30 pm, Saturday 2 pm. $27-$51. 416-368-3110. Rating: NNNNN
In his colourful career, Damien Atkins has worn a shelf's worth of hats. Edgy indie actor and playwright. Stratford thesp. Cabaret singer with a queer twist. Sondheim specialist.
But last year he tried on a new one - call it the theatre promoter hat - when he and actor Rosemary Dunsmore knocked on CanStage artistic producer Martin Bragg's office door.
"Imagine two actors pitching a show to the largest theatre in town," says Atkins. "We called him. He took the meeting. He was receptive. He believed in us."
It didn't hurt that the show they were selling - the Tennessee Williams classic The Glass Menagerie, directed by Chris Abraham - was a proven commodity that played Montreal's Saidye Bronfman Centre in 2002. In fact, the production won a Masque Award for outstanding English-language show.
Now, with the artistic team intact, it kicks off the second half of CanStage's season.
"The show sits in a deeper, more confident place in me this time around," says Atkins, who plays Tom Wingfield, the show's ambiguous narrator.
"When we started to rehearse this time around, I found impulses, ideas and even body postures coming from a different place," says Atkins.
"I think time lets your subconscious work on things. A lot of what we're doing is from the memory of that first production. But we're re-examining things, which is appropriate, because the play's all about memory."
Williams's 1945 play about a St. Louis family - controlling mother Amanda, shy daughter Laura and poetry-writing shoe factory worker Tom, loosely based on Williams himself - has never gone out of fashion. Last year, Sally Field earned raves as Amanda in Washington, DC, and this year Jessica Lange plays the same role on Broadway.
"It holds up gorgeously," explains Atkins. "Whether you can relate to the literal nuts and bolts of their lives - the fact that there's no hot water, or that Tom has only two shirts - doesn't matter. Their emotional life is still completely recognizable. The family dynamic feels contemporary."
That said, Atkins admits Williams was definitely a product of his time.
"For instance, his homosexuality wasn't something he discussed with his family," he says. "He didn't discuss it publicly until the 1970s, and even then he was ahead of his time. I think the play accurately represents what was going on at that time, but a lot of it is in code, dealt with elliptically."
Atkins and director Abraham don't want to reveal too much about their approach to the play, which has specific technical requirements involving slides, musical cues and lighting.
"I will say we're sticking as much as we can to what Williams asked for," says Atkins. "We don't have slides, but we have incorporated some of Williams's poetry into the design."
Abraham and Atkins are also exploring Tom's role as narrator.
"We're examining why Tom is letting us see the play, what he as a character wants to achieve," says Atkins, who just returned from a western tour of his hit musical revue, Real Live Girl, and is currently developing two new scripts - one for CanStage, the other for Buddies in Bad Times. Atkins balks when I suggest that the title's symbolism is a tad heavy-handed.
"I don't think it's obvious at all," he argues. "I guess you could hammer it over the head, but we're handling it delicately, in the spirit of the play. We're not being too literal or showy.
"We're treating it like Shakespeare. Williams is just as detailed and incisive and pertinent."