PlayMakers Repertory Company is living up to its name: It has opened two new shows in rotating rep, to run through March 1st in the Paul Green Theatre in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Dramatic Art. It is also living up to its mission as a part of the university, both in its training of student actors in a professional setting, and in its aggressive onstage tango with ideas and their realities. PRC’s working in the rotating rep schedule allows us a more intense engagement with the plays than if they were presented separately — a way to compare and contrast them while they are still perfectly fresh in the mind.

For this rotating pair, PRC chose two memory plays, both of which stretch the conventions of their times in their formal construction, and both of which explore illness and wellness, and the compressive and explosive forces associated with them. The older is Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, which has been produced untold numbers of times; the newer is Lisa Kron’s Well, written in 2004 and not widely known. Whereas Williams was a playwright, Kron is a performance artist who does theatrical explorations. She appeared during PlayMakers’ PRC2 series last year, with her one-person show, 2.5 Minute Ride.

This pairing, on the face of it, could hardly be more perfect — both plays concern, partially, mother-daughter relationships; the demands ill-health places on families; and questions of what precisely constitutes health — in a person, in a family, in a community. A problem arises, however, in the imbalance of quality in the two artworks.

Well, if it were a sculpture, might look like a loose swirl of sticks, just about to fall apart. If it were a piece of music, it would feature a little dog yapping over an uncertain bass beat, punctuated intermittently with crashing chords. If it were a book, it would be a slim one, as its ideas are few, and dependent on repetition to give them the appearance of substantiality. If it were a play, it would include passages of narrative and emotional force — but since it is a theatrical exploration, it does not bother, instead touting its own self-awareness as an artistic construct again and again. I could appreciate the construction, and having thought long decades on both illness and racial integration, I could appreciate those concerns — but I can find no appreciation for the format that combines neurotic shtick with frantic handwringing and just cannot seem to get to its point. After about 90 seconds, I felt like I was trapped on a slow boat to China. Near the end, there were a couple of moving lines; but the ending itself was as sappy and sentimental as a TV sit-com. Although Well is structured almost identically to 2.5 Minute Ride (it is still a one-person show, even though there are others on stage), no jolt of energy is produced when it closes its circle of thought.

It is possible that Well, though weak at heart, would have appeared more worthy if it had not followed guest director Libby Appel’s flawless staging of The Glass Menagerie. This show is a critic’s nightmare: there is not one thing to even quibble about, and there are an excessive number to praise in this production that brings full humanity to each of its characters.

First, Appel made a wonderful decision to bifurcate the role of Tom, the son. The younger Tom, baffled, angry, and sly (well-played by visitor John Tufts) appears in the action; the older Tom, portrayed by PRC’s Ray Dooley, addresses the audience. I have seen Dooley do some wonderful stuff, but nothing quite as delicate and beautiful as this Tom, resigned by age to the necessity of his youthful escape from and abandonment of his mother and sister. He shares with us his bitter wine, spiced with guilt and regret, without ever sloshing the cup and staining his white suit — but he knows his “freedom” requires drinking down the dregs himself.

Only gradually do you realize that director Appel has not fallen into the easy trap of slanting the story to favor one character and caricaturize the rest. The Menagerie that we see here is not the tragedy of an artistic son stifled by his demanding mother; it is not a bathetic tale of a dreamy crippled girl; it is not about the madness of an abandoned Southern belle, living in the past; nor yet is it about the perfidy of gentlemen callers. It is about all of these jammed up people doing their awkward best to be themselves; it is about the impossibility of being oneself without hurting those around you. It is as balanced and beauteous as a late Beethoven quartet.

Appel and visiting actor Judith-Marie Bergan give us an extraordinarily sympathetic Amanda Wingfield. We are allowed to see this self-loving, controlling, exasperating mother in a truer light than is often the case. Here is a woman with very few resources, trying to survive, and — more importantly — trying to ensure the survival of her daughter, who was not made to walk this world unaided. In this sense, she is the manifestation of instinct, and that makes that irony of her lines elevating human culture at the expense of animal instinct all the more poignant. Amanda Wingfield’s job is not done until she can feel sure of her daughter’s survival, and she will use any tool she can to complete that job — even her own son. Bergan’s highly physical portrayal of desperation clothed in charm is breathtaking, down to the last detail of accent and gesture.

First-year MFA student Marianne Miller, already noted in last fall’s Pericles, makes a fine Laura. Excess is so common in this role, but Miller plays the girl not as mad but as deeply withdrawn — crippled by shyness as much as by her bad leg. It was almost unbearable to watch her open up to the Gentleman Caller, knowing what was to come. But it was a moment of unexpected grace, along with the pain. Fellow acting student John Brummer, as the Gentleman Caller, brings a gentleness to the role that works very well. He is not portrayed as a cad — for even the nicest men sometimes must stray a little from the path of true love — and when he accepts the broken glass unicorn as a souvenir from Laura, he seems as sensible of the honor of the gift as she seems of his honor as a man.

All this excellence of interpretation and portrayal is well matched by the other aspects of the staging. The dynamic team of McKay Coble and Jan Chambers is back with a fine stage set (which must and does work for two plays) and wonderful costuming. They are aided by Robert Peterson’s lighting (especially fine for Menagerie) and Michael Matthews’ sound and projected visuals. The introduction of projected backgrounds has enlivened the Paul Green Theatre immeasurably, and in Menagerie they are used both to establish physical place and to convey the paradoxical dominance of the absent father. The final detail that completes the unforgettable perfection of this production of The Glass Menagerie is Trevor Wignall’s lone violin sighing and improvising from on high. For, as the older Tom says in the first scene, “in memory everything seems to happen to music.”

For details about future performances of both shows, please see our theatre calendar.