Staging a masterpiece work comes with a lot of pressure; thus, director Preston Lane’s admitted hesitancy in bringing to Triad Stage The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams, the first performance in Triad Stage’s 10th anniversary season. That pressure goes double when you learn that Lane unabashedly calls Williams his inspiration; indeed, Williams is something of the muse for this marvelous Southern regional theatre. This is the fourth Tennessee Williams play Lane has staged since Triad Stage’s inception.

So Triad Stage’s The Glass Menagerie, then, is not just another play for Lane. It is an homage, of sorts, to the master.  It is a glittering, glowing, glamorous tribute. 

A touching letter to Tennessee Williams from Lane graces the playbill (always a jewel in itself, thanks to dramaturg Drew Barker). This missive is perhaps the most open Lane has ever been with his public about the artistic process. It is eloquent and beautifully written, and portrays a vulnerability that’s hard to find in directing circles.

Contrary to what most people might remember about Menagerie’s plot and its characters, based mostly on Williams’ own life, this play is not so much about the story as it is about the process and peculiarities of remembering: a “memory play,” Williams called it.

From Lane’s letter to Williams: “Everything in my production seeks to find the best way to get the heart of the play you wrote and to honor the spirit of your production notes.”

So if audiences are tempted to characterize this staging as startling and avant-garde, be advised: Lane is striving to closely follow Williams’ 1944 script. What ensues is a theatrically pure production, as much like Williams’ true vision as perhaps any ever staged.

In Menagerie, we are watching memory on top of memory: memory being made, memory being stored, and memory being replayed. What are memories if not images projected inside our heads? And this is exactly what Lane achieves: a bombardment of images, both real and projected. In the original Broadway production, Williams had suggested in the script the use of a projector to display images in the background, but that didn’t happen. Nor has the device been used much since.

Enter Lane and his team of designers. To go where few theatres have gone before shows artistic courage and proves that Lane is ready to take his directing to another level.
Unless you’re a Menagerie virgin, you’re probably familiar with the play’s quirky quartet: the overbearing mother, restless son, disabled sister, the debonair gentleman caller.

As Amanda Wingfield, the mother, Kate Goehring has perfect pitch. Even her complexion exudes a dewy sallowness that is at once luminous and unhealthy. Her Southern drawl does not seem forced, and her intonation draws you in, as would a record played on an old phonograph. Indeed, there’s a certain melody to her elocution that is both heartbreakingly wistful and a tinge annoying (just as it should be). This is Goehring’s third Triad Stage appearance. Audiences might remember her most recently in her role(s) in The Blonde, The Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead. Amanda is a very tricky part to play, to which the actress Jessica Lange could attest, having been lambasted for her performance in the 1995 Broadway revival. There’s a dramatic chasm between sugary sweet and domineering, and Goehring nimbly walks that tightrope like the pro she is. 

Matthew Carlson, also a Triad Stage alumnus (“Picnic”), is Tom, our memory guide, our dutiful son, and, in this play, our cameraman. Tripping between those roles is a real feat, and, safe to say, not something that many actors have ever done. Carlson must break character somewhat to film his memories, which he does with a hand-held camcorder. At times, the transitions seem a little awkward, and certainly not something theatre-goers are accustomed to. Just go with it. You could be watching theatre history being made.

As disabled daughter Laura, Cheryl Koski demonstrates the shyness, the misery and the downright terror of being the over-sheltered offspring of Amanda Wingfield.  Koski’s role as the tomboy in Triad Stage’s Picnic left audiences wanting more, and she delivers as the fragile Laura, a complete 180 from her last role. All that stuttering must be difficult to su-sustain. But couple a physical impairment with an overbearing mother with more than a few personality disorders and there’s plenty of room for speech impediments as she cowers under her mother’s outspread wings. Poor Laura. This fledgling will never fly, but Koski, a UNCG junior, surely has a bright acting future ahead of her. 

Tyler Hollinger as The Gentleman Caller makes his Triad Stage debut, and the effect of his acting on the audience can be summed up in a word: “More!”  The New York actor, who was a cast member on ABC’s What Would You Do? for four seasons and acted on All My Children, provides rare moments of humor in this tragedy, and cracks up the audience with his ad-libs. More than anyone, Hollinger makes this play modern, whether or not he intended to. Catch this actor before he hits the big time.

Ah, Anya Klepikov’s set – both a triumph and a bit of a mirage. Everything is see-through: tables, chairs, stepladder, feather-duster handle.  If it seems a bit too transparent, perhaps it’s because our attention is being directed to the large screen behind the set. At times it seems that we’re privy to someone’s gigantic laptop webcam. But other video is truly riveting. Then there’s the element of reflection, which is, after all, what Tom is doing in this play. The glowing see-through floor made with glass shards is really cool. And the glass menagerie?  Well, that’s simply Triad Stage magic. Fifty-three glass critters float overhead. You must see this to believe it. (The handmade glass figurines will be auctioned in a fund-raiser after the show ends.)

All the chilly, hard furniture and accessories fit in nicely with Kelsey Hunt’s wardrobe interpretation.  Brilliantly, in fact.  Everyone is in white. It’s like someone took an eraser to these beautiful 1930s costumes. Amanda’s sleek couture dress. The guys’ white bucks. Even a white pea coat for Tom, a Merchant Marine. And when was the last time you saw yellow seersucker. Too much white?  Remember, these are spirits we’re watching – ghosts in Tom’s memory. Aha.

The only warmth comes when Jim, the gentleman caller, pulls out a glass candelabra when the lights go out. The scene between Jim and Laura is the highlight of the play – our love scene. Minus the love, of course.

In a way, Lane becomes our own Tom, searing this unforgettable staging of The Glass Menagerie into our own memories. Tennessee Williams would be proud.

The production runs through September 26. For details, see our calendar.