Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Glass Menagerie
San Francisco Playhouse

Nicole Javier, Jomar Tagatac and Susi Damilano
Photo by Jessica Palopoli
Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie appears on many lists of the best plays of the 20th century. And with good reason: the characters are sharply drawn, the story is contained within a small apartment yet seems to reach out for a bigger world, and Williams' text is both poetic yet naturalistic. It's a delight for audiences, but I'm guessing the experience is even more delightful for actors, who can seize the opportunity to delve into the characters' lives and mine the rich ore of memory, longing and regret Williams' text is veined with.

While it may not precisely be fun to portray characters who, for the most part, are sad, heartsick, disappointed, thwarted or regretful–and often a combination of those dolorous aspects of life–the cast of San Francisco Playhouse's production of this classic clearly relish the opportunity to spend time inside the skins of the Wingfield family and their Gentleman Caller.

The story takes place in a dingy St. Louis apartment (the set, by Christopher Fitzer, is a dichotomy–detailed, yet simple and spare) across the alley from a dance hall, which is indicated by a giant neon sign reading "Paradise" that is hung upstage. The residents of these relatively shabby digs are Amanda Wingfield (a glorious Susi Damilano–more on her in a moment), a faded Southern belle whose husband abandoned her some 16 years prior to the action on the play; her daughter Laura (Nicole Javier), for whom it's hard to tell which of her crosses is harder to bear–the limp left over from an earlier bout with pleurosis, or her debilitating shyness; and Laura's younger brother Tom (Jomar Tagatac), who, like his father before him, wants nothing more than to be free of the stifling atmosphere of the Wingfield home. In act two, a "gentleman caller" (in the term preferred by Amanda hearkening back to her days as a Mississippi debutante) appears, in the form of Tom's co-worker down at the shoe warehouse, Jim (William Thomas Hodgson).

Amanda, who kills with criticism disguised as kindness, hectors at her children to make something of themselves. She is controlling to such a degree that it feels almost as if her world is as fragile as the glass animals Laura collects, and even the slightest crack will spread until the whole structure dissolves into dust. There's a moment when Tom is drinking a cup of coffee before heading off to work and his mother insists he take a little cream. Despite Tom's insisting multiple times that he prefers it black, once he removes his hand from over his cup, Amanda goes ahead and pours in some cream.

Under Jeffrey Lo's direction, this production of The Glass Menagerie moves briskly, while still maintaining breathing room for the actors to deliver the text in a way that is sprightly, yet still languid where that pace is called for. Though he may overuse SF Playhouse's turntable, Lo's direction overall is spot-on. By having Tom onstage as the audience is assembling in their seats as he paces, smokes, and scribbles in a small notebook, Lo gives us a sense of Tom's restlessness. Having Tom and Amanda walk across the stage hand in hand just before the first lines are spoken reinforces the hold the mother has on her son, and the clinging nature of her relationship with him. Lo also has his players remain onstage even when they are not in a scene (albeit far stage left or stage right), reminding us how omnipresent each of them is in the lives of the others. Even Jim, who's not truly a part of the lives of the Wingfields, is never out of sight. As Tom says in one of his narrations, "the image of the Gentleman Caller haunted our apartment."

But it's the acting that sets this production above any other that I have seen. Susi Damilano, as the producing director of San Francisco Playhouse, is usually behind the scenes, always producing, sometimes directing, but occasionally performing. Given her stunningly brilliant turn as Amanda, I'd be happy if she'd grace the Playhouse stage even more often. With her perfect Southern accent (dialect coaching by Janel Miley), upright posture, and devotion to her antebellum morality, Damilano (in a perfectly fusty wig) loses herself inside Amanda. There is never a moment when her face displays anything other than the perfect expression in each instant. Each gesture seems to add to the richness of her characterization–the simple act of adjusting a chair can be fraught with menace. At the top of act two, when the Gentleman Caller is on his way, Susi embodies Amanda's joy at this development by somehow appearing significantly lighter, as though she is gliding through their apartment.

Jomar Tagatac, fast becoming one of the Bay Area's best actors, is a terrific Tom (even if he is a bit too old for the part, as Tom is supposed to be 22), with a seething rage that his character manages to contain, rather like a bag of venomous serpents, coiling and stretching the cloth but never escaping. Tom, who many scholars think Williams based on himself, is trapped–not only by his clinging mother, but perhaps also by his sexuality, which is subtly expressed in the occasional glances with Jim that are held just a beat longer than propriety would indicate, and in a brief moment of physical contact that feels just a touch more than friendly.

Pair a great play with a great cast, skillfully directed, performed on a lovely evocative set, and lit by designer Wen-Ling Liao (and her assistant Spenser Matubang) so that the lighting calls attention not to itself but to the action and transitions on stage, and you have the makings of an evening of great theatre.

The Glass Menagerie runs through June 15, 2024, at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Thursdays at 7:00pm, Wednesdays at 2:00pm and 7:00pm, Fridays at 8:00pm, Saturdays at 3:00pm and 8:00pm, and Sundays at 2:00pm. Tickets are $30-$125. For tickets and information, please visit or call the box office at 415-677-9596.