Story: In this “memory play,” Tennessee Williams recounts the melancholy tale of Tom Wingfield, an aspiring young writer who supports his mother and handicapped sister by working at a shoe company in a job he detests.

His mother Amanda lives in the past, recalling the grand life of a belle in the Old South courted by more young men than she can count. Older sister Laura mostly spends her time arranging and caring for her “glass menagerie” of finely wrought pieces depicting various animals. She didn’t quite make it through high school, and business school overwhelmed her.

While Tom seeks refuge nightly at “the movies” beyond their cramped St. Louis apartment, he finally and reluctantly agrees to bring home a “gentleman caller” to appease his mother and her fears of her daughter becoming an “old maid.” The young man, a friend from the warehouse named Jim O’Connor, turns out to have gone to Soldan High School with Laura, stirring up fond and distant memories. But how will those bygone days translate to the present?

Highlights: Upstream Theater kicks off Carrie Houk’s inaugural Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, featuring several events between May 11 and May 15, with an affecting performance of Williams’ first major hit, a thinly veiled autobiographical account of the writer’s formative years in St. Louis.

Other Info: A massive photo, or what looks like a photo, of a brick building and alley stairwell dominates the background of Michael Heil’s set, which is meticulously decorated with furniture fitting the late 1930s period of the drama. Claudia Horn’s props include a stately old Victrola at stage left and manual typewriter at stage right as well as fine china and candelabra from Amanda’s tonier days.

The mood is further enhanced with Steve Carmichael’s lighting evocative of a lonely, haunted place, augmented by Joe Dreyer’s somber music that occasionally is contrasted by the earthy, vivacious sounds emanating from a nearby jazz club. The players are decked out in costumes designed by Laura Hanson that feature suspenders for the men, frilly dresses for the ladies and a plain fedora worn by the aged Tom as he ambles around the perimeter of the set with a walker while he tells his story.

J. Samuel Davis is an accomplished actor and he’s equally effective as the old man recalling his troubled youth and the emerging artist chafing under his mother’s suffocating presence. It’s unfortunate, though, that young Tom has such gray hair, a bit of a jarring look which indicates that Davis really is too old for the role of young Tom.  Director Philip Boehm works around this by emphasizing the older writer recollecting his past.

Pairing Davis with Linda Kennedy as Amanda was a shrewd idea by Boehm. It’s fascinating to watch Davis squirm and struggle to escape the shackles of his mother’s oppressive personality, which Kennedy conveys in convincingly oblivious fashion.

Logic and reality have no place in Amanda's home, where delusion is king and the desperate search for a happy ending is ever elusive. After all, she still showcases a photo of her husband 16 years after he abandoned the family and never looked back. Kennedy shows us that no one ever really escapes Amanda’s vise-like grip, which Davis highlights with Tom’s volcanic bursts of temper that eventually lead to begrudging reconciliation.

Boehm scores as well with his selection of Sydney Frasure as Laura and Jason Contini as Jim. Their star-crossed meeting dominates Act II as much as the mother and son duet is the focus of the first act. Carmichael’s soft lighting underscores the genuine kindness of Jim as he recalls the girl he knew as “Blue Roses,” with the sharing of a stick of gum or a magical dance to the tunes of the jazz club wafting through the door.

Frasure’s face, with its myriad expressions of anxiety, forlorn sadness and a brief but beautiful appearance of joy, is a major instrument used by Boehm to accentuate the poetry in Williams’ words and the vitality of his characters. Her performance is a delight to observe as she illustrates Laura’s fragile psyche.

The Glass Menagerie depicted Williams’ unhappy times in St. Louis before he moved away to fame, fortune and happier days in New Orleans and elsewhere before his turbulent life ended in 1983. Ironically, it helped establish his career and reputation as one of the finest American playwrights of the 20th century.

As such, it’s a fitting way to begin a festival devoted to the life and work of one of St. Louis’ most famous and talented prodigal sons. More information on the Williams Festival, which includes plays, events and speaking presentations, can be obtained by visiting its web site at www.twstl.org.

Play: The Glass Menagerie

Group: Upstream Theater

Venue: Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand at Olive

Dates: May 5, 6, 7, 8, 12, 13, 14, 15

Tickets: $20-$30; contact upstreamtheater@sbcglobal.net or upstreamtheater.org

Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5

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