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Memory becomes music in Tennessee Williams’ American classic, The Glass Menagerie.

The precise and poetic stage directions of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie call for melodies to seep into the St. Louis apartment where the story unfolds—from the dance hall across the street, from the Victorola on which Laura plays her father’s old records, and from her brother Tom’s imagination, which is the true location of the drama.

Mark Clements’ lush and layered new production, which opened this weekend at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, honors the musical in Williams—not only with Joe Cerqua’s evocative incidental music, but in the images and dialog as well.

As with any classic, there are myriad ways to bring Williams’ work to the stage (see, for example, descriptions of Sam Gold’s brutalist production that just opened on Broadway). Clements honors Williams’ dreamscape of a play with music and shadows, half-seen glimpses and shards of melody that make up recollections that are fierce and insistent.

Tom (Ryan Imhoff) literally ascends into the story from below, climbing out of the hatch of the Merchant Marine ship of his present, entering the realm of his memory. Once there, he recounts his past–his life with a fragile sister and an overbearing mother–in an evocative setting that draws us into that vivid and painful world.

Featuring Kelsey Brennan, Brendan Dahlquist. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Philip Witcomb’s set is literally a hall of mirrors–worn so much by time that the silver is eroding. Sometimes they reflect the scene, offering us a view of the action from multiple perspectives. And sometimes they allow us to peer through and see the world beyond the sofa, the Victorola and the tray of delicate glass animals. A monumental portrait of the family’s absent father shines through. Or we see into the dining room where Tom works on his poems, Laura works on her typing lessons, and Amanda works on preserving the veneer of her old Southern gentility in these shabby surroundings.

We see shadows, too. When the lights go out during the long-awaited dinner gathering, the lit candles throw a crowd of silhouettes onto the walls. Suddenly, there seems to be a world of gentlemen callers, morose Toms, and nerve-panicked Amandas. It’s a touching, heart-rending vision.

There’s music in the performances as well. Tom’s introspective narration is rendered in a basso profundo that carries anger and regret even as it offers a manly anchor to the teetering household. Amanda, meanwhile, floats over this ostinato like a filigreed violin. Hollis Resnick has more substance than many Amandas, but she voices her character’s  nervous energy with a great facility for Williams’ rhythms and poetry.

Of course, the still center of this symphony is the long conversation between Laura (Kelsey Brennan) and the gentlemen caller (Brandon Dahlquist). It’s one of the iconic scenes in American theater, and director Mark Clements and his actors mine the nuances to find true heartbreak. Brennan lets Laura’s fragile humanity unfold slowly, and Dahlquist is the perfect partner, blending aw-shucks awkwardness with moments of true tenderness.

Amid the shadows and reflections, they create a few moments of warmth and spark in the tortured world of Tom’s memory. And they linger beautifully, even after he leaves them behind and slams the hatch on the world he left behind.

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