At Hubbard Hall, a "Glass Menagerie" that looks back in anger

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CAMBRIDGE, N.Y. — CLACK-CLACK.

It's the first sounds you hear in Hubbard Hall Theatre's steadfast production of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie."

A pause. Then CLACK-CLACK-CACK-CLACK.

Fingers poised over and then crashing down on the keys of an old typewriter planted on a wooden table.

Seated at the chair is a bearlike Tom Wingfield (David Snider), his body encased in a loose-fitting striped shirt that is unbuttoned at the top, exposing his undershirt and baggy tan pants; one brace of his red suspenders firmly set over his right shoulder; the other brace hanging down his left side in almost willful abandon and neglect. Smoke curls up from a cigarette (an E-cigarette for this production), forming a cloud over his head that seems to thicken before it vaporizes.

More typing before Tom speaks

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"Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve," he says to us. "But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion."

The setting is St. Louis in 1937. Tom is trapped in a small apartment with his manipulative, strong-willed mother, Amanda (an unrelenting Christine Decker), and his sister, Laura (Grace Sgambettera), a painfully shy girl who wears a brace on one leg and whose only interest is a collection of delicately crafted glass animals.

For Amanda, life is an unending series of disappointments from which there seems to be no escape, no release. None of the "gentlemen callers" from her girlhood in the South saw Amanda as marrying material, The man she did marry, a telephone lineman who, Amanda says in what has become something of a mantra "fell in love with long distance," and abandoned them all. His only trace is a smiling photo — a cut-out black-and-white silhouette suspended above the intimate four-sided playing space in which director Roger Danforth's production is set.

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Amanda's son works in a shoe factory and shows no ambition other than to become a writer which, for Amanda, is the equivalent of having no ambition at all.. When Tom is not at work, he stays out, late, drinking and when he is not drinking, he is at the movies, experiencing a blown-up rendering of lives lived in fiction that he wishes he could experience for real.

Laura turns out to be a failure at secretarial school and so Amanda pins her fading hopes on landing a husband for her, coercing Tom into bringing home one of his co-workers, which he does. The Gentleman Caller, Jim O'Connor (a persuasive and engaging Woodrow Proctor), turns out to have been a classmate of Laura in high school; a hugely popular boy upon whom Laura had a crush. But like everything else in Amanda's life, this hope, too, turns out to be false.

"The Glass Menagerie" is, as Tom says in the beginning, a "memory play. Being a memory play," he says, "it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic."

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But, rather than sentiment, Tom's reflections on this turning point in his life seem more an exercise in looking back in anger. Anger may be the only tool he has left to finally break from his past. Tom is a very real presence in the play's early scenes, moving furniture, setting the table, holding out a chair for Laura or Amanda, not as an active character but as a facilitator, a ghostly presence, a scene-setter who then retreats to a cubbyhole in the shadows just outside the playing area. And yet, Snider's Tom is more like the bull in the china shop The binds that tie Amanda, Laura and Tom to each other are only faintly defined. As Laura, Sgambettera, a student at Hudson Valley Community College, comes closest in the ways she looks at Tom and especially in a moment roughly midway through the first half, when Tom, who has come home late after twice sitting through "a very long program" at the movies that included a live stage show featuring a magician, sinks into sleep on a chaise and Laura, with all the care she gives her glass animals, gently drapes a blanket over his body.

Decker and particularly Snider are skillful performers and their work here, despite a limited, often monochromatic palette, is focused and driving.

The intimacy of having the audience on four sides of the action in Hudson Hall's Main Stage is inviting. But Williams' poetry remains elusive. The connections that strain against separation are barely felt.

" ... nowadays the world is lit by lightning," Tom, now a merchant seaman, says referring to the turmoil of world war; turmoil that is as much about thunder as it is about lightning.

In this production, it's the thunder that lingers.

Reach Jeffrey Borak at 413-496-6212


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