>>> The Glass Menagerie gets a polished modern update

THE GLASS MENAGERIE by Tennessee Williams (73H/Howland Company). At the Theatre Centre Incubator (1115 Queen West). To September 11. $15-$30..


THE GLASS MENAGERIE by Tennessee Williams (73H/Howland Company). At the Theatre Centre Incubator (1115 Queen West). To September 11. $15-$30. 416-538-0988, theatrecentre.org. See Continuing. Rating: NNNN

Director Philip McKee breathes new life into this American classic with a compelling quasi-update that subtly blends elements from the 1930s with a few from the 1990s.

Without departing radically from the text, McKee selectively builds on the original it’s still the hazy memoir of Tom (James Graham), a former St. Louis factory worker, about coping with the oppressive dynamic in his family’s tiny apartment where his overbearing single mother, Amanda (Tracey Hoyt), a relic of the southern gentry, obsesses over finding a “gentleman caller” for his introverted older sister, Laura (Hannah Spear).

The few anachronistic elements incorporated into the set design, like a CD player in place of the family’s old Victrola and a touch-tone land line telephone, coexist with talk of typing classes, revolution in Spain, Neville Chamberlain and a blighted U.S. economy.

The risky mixture works, partly because Tom, the narrator, frames the action at the outset as a dream play mixing truth and illusion, and because suggestive (and at times quite humorous) hints of the future continually provoke an ongoing meta-comparison of past and present – a theme at the forefront of the play’s inter-generational conflict. When McKee does augment the script, the changes are clever and well thought out.

Strong naturalistic performances abound. Right from Tom’s opening monologue, Graham deftly conveys the high eloquence of Williams’s script while keeping his downtrodden, world-weary, at-wits’-end character immediately relatable.

With the audience seated in a square surrounding and overlooking the Theatre Centre Incubator’s sunken stage space, the view of the family’s modest apartment and the fiery psychological combat that unfolds feel extremely intimate – literally a fly-on-the-wall perspective.

To make a masterpiece feel new, relevant and exciting without resorting to a complete overhaul is a rare thing. McKee and the cast succeed by finding resonances in the most powerful moments that amplify rather than reorient the spirit of Williams’s work for a modern audience.

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