'Menagerie' nearly captures delicacy, desperation in Williams' classic drama

Tennessee Williams’ classic play “The Glass Menagerie” is filled with drama and it’s easy to guide with a heavy hand. Happily, this production at the Onyx Theatre, directed by Ernie Curcio, manages to bring a lightness that deftly counterbalances the desperation that simmers beneath the surface of the characters.

Premiering in Chicago in 1944, the play made its way to Broadway amid critical acclaim and launched Williams career as one of our most formidable playwrights. Described as a “memory play,” he deliberately placed a few specific errors into the dialogue to solidify the point that memory never truly serves reality.

The character of Tom Wingfield (Brandon McClenahan) narrates and appears in the action scenes, caring for his mother, Amanda (Valerie Carpenter-Bernstein), and sister, Laura (Jessica Afton).

As the play starts, McClenahan as narrator teases us much like a carnival barker with promises of truth disguised as illusion, then joins the action and delivers it in a strong, nuanced performance.

Tom longs to escape the drudgery of being the provider. Amanda yearns for the moneyed gentility she’ll never regain; she is Blanche DuBois before the tumble into insanity. Laura wants to live solely in the world of her glass figurines and Victrola. Abandoned by her husband, and as a means of future survival, Amanda cajoles Tom into finding a husband for the suffering Laura.

With each movement and inflection, Carpenter-Bernstein brings a perfect pitch of false gaiety to the desperate Amanda, making her crash into reality at the play’s end heart-wrenching.

Aaron Oetting is excellent as The Gentleman Caller, who Tom brings home to woo the timid Laura. Oetting begins with a used-car salesman quality neatly transitioning into a caring individual who feels remorse in the possibility he’s hurt the fragile Laura as he leaves, a depth rarely achieved with this role.

The disappointment comes in the performance of Afton, who defies every description of her character. As her suitor says, the terrible limp is “in your own mind.” The disability should be so subtle as to be almost unnoticeable. Yet, Afton never finds the tremulous timidity in voice or action to convince us she lacks the confidence to deal with the outside world. And it’s here Curcio makes a mistake in having her jump into frays between Amanda and Tom, one a physical altercation, something the fainthearted Laura wouldn’t do.

Production values, which help to complete stage illusion, are missing. There is a telephone without a cord, a half-eaten dinner on a spotless plate, lemonades — with a cherry in each one!” — are empty glasses, and costumes don’t change in Act 1 though dialogue and action tell us time has passed. Overlooking these small details detracts from the overall experience because, no matter how momentary, they jar our suspension of disbelief.

However, David Sankuer’s set dazzles. He drapes a sheer, but slightly shimmering visqueen across portions of the set, adding a sense that we are indeed viewing the action through the gauze of memory, which can sometimes sparkle, as well as fade to fuzziness.