Mabou Mines, the avant-garde experimental theater group with 40 years of turning plays inside out to see what else is in there, was at Duke recently for a residency which culminated with a staged reading in Sheafer Lab Theater of the piece they’d been workshopping. It was billed as The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, but the meat of that play turned out to be the sandwich filling for a theatrical exercise that breaded the well-known story with slices from two little-known Williams’ plays.

The point was to heighten awareness and understanding of Williams’ various female characters as they link to his biography with his sister Rose, and how she forms an underlying model for the delicate, crippled Laura in The Glass Menagerie. In a larger sense, the Mabou Mines re-working encourages us to see all of Williams’ art as an extension of his biography — his life within what you might call the tyranny of the times.

This didn’t strike me as all that fresh an idea, but the company did bring out with a refreshing relish many irritating and anti-heroic aspects of all the characters they played. Only the Gentleman Caller seemed exempt from a slightly snide theater-about-theater vein in the sandwiched work. Nicholas Novicki, with his pleasant warm voice, made him gentle and kind, without any pity or negating asides.

I personally have a hard time caring about multiple characters played by one actor, and by one character played by multiple actors — both of which occurred in this work. I can enjoy the play of ideas, and the actors’ craft, but I can’t emotionally attach, and that makes theater such as this less interesting to me than a play not de- and re-constructed, but played as written and re-interpreted. As fascinating as it is to glimpse the theater artists’ process, and to see a layered, nuanced interpretation of these characters, it comes at the sacrifice of one resounding story.