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"In Spain there was Guernica! But here there was only hot swing music and liquor, dance halls, bars, and movies, and sex that hung in the gloom like a chandelier and flooded the world with brief, deceptive rainbows.”

Tennessee’s back in town. Lamb’s Players is staging Williams’s early masterpiece, The Glass Menagerie, and no matter how many times one sees the play, his language, at once precise and ethereal, resonates. Raymond Chandler, eat your heart out!

Williams says the play’s about memory and “therefore nonrealistic” (he wants the interior “dim and poetic,” whatever that means), but his stage directions — and the script — call for photographic representation as well. Lamb’s production wavers uneasily between realism and reverie.

On Mike Buckley’s set, tall, floral-patterned bolts of gauze, autumnally lit by Nathan Peirson, loom over scruffy furnishings. But young Tom’s fire escape’s just a grill on the floor, downstage, and instead of the “murky canyons of tangled clotheslines” Williams wanted, the huge fourth wall has an airy, expansive feel — a far cry from the claustrophobia the play calls for and that Amanda instills when she terrorizes her children with good intentions.

In his notes, Williams defends Amanda, the controlling mother much like his own (“she has endurance and a kind of heroism”). In effect, he says, don’t play her as a monster. Deborah Gilmour Smyth’s performance releases Amanda’s positive characteristics, especially when she greets the Gentleman Caller and momentarily sheds her sorrows. She wears a faded green antebellum dress and imagines herself the belle of the ball, courted by 17 gents. Smyth makes Amanda a chattering magpie, and some of her speeches flow like arias. In spite of Williams’s protestations, however, Amanda has a smidge of the harpy (as when she shouts “cripple” at Laura, which the production plays down but which should flare like a nova). Smyth excels at what she does. But her defanged choices evoke laughter, in act 2, when the play calls for less flattering responses.

Sean Cox has done wonderful work on local stages, but his portrayal of Tom makes no sense. Cox doesn’t use a Southern accent — for puzzling reasons, only Amanda does — and too often he blasts his speeches, headlining every word. This over-the-top, ungentlemanly caller approach makes Tom more irritant than advocate.

At one point as she tries to inflate her daughter’s self-confidence, Amanda says Laura isn’t “crippled.” She just has a “slight defect.” Sarah Zimmerman’s Laura can’t quite decide which. To her credit, Zimmerman locates Laura deep within herself, like a diving bell in a murky sea, occasionally coming up for air. Her visit with the Gentleman Caller (one of the most precisely crafted scenes in dramatic literature) is quite touching. As if plucked from an Arrow shirt ad, Jason Heil looks as if he’s teaching Laura the power of positive thinking. And he is, some. When she sees him, Amanda sheds 25 years. Laura’s adulation of the once-heroic Gentleman Caller flips him back in time. Heil slowly reveals that the Caller’s been pumping himself up all along. In the process, Laura breathes fresh air for the last time.

***

Billy Claven isn’t Irish drama’s equivalent to Laura Wingfield. He’s much more assertive, with a touch of her brother Tom as well. But like Laura (and John Merrick, the Elephant Man), the young “cripple of Inishmaan” lives below the bottom line, in a cruel, blinker-minded world that treats him like a living mistake.

On Inishmaan, a rocky island off the western coast of Ireland, people watch cows, talk to stones, and become “half doolally” for the latest news. The best in years: an American crew, led by director Robert Flaherty, has come to film Man of Aran (which he did in 1934). He wants locals for color, may take a few to Hollywood. The least likely candidate, Billy, goes.

In Martin McDonagh’s remarkable Cripple of Inishmaan, information and disinformation, comedy and tragedy dance a bittersweet jig. It’s as if everyone’s been cemented to the rocky coast for eons. Since everyone knows everyone else, and boredom shrouds them like a fog, villagers express themselves, especially sadistic urges, freely. The only thing they repress: the truth. Like Flaherty’s movie, much of which wasn’t filmed on location, the truth’s a patchwork, often used to torment their neighbors.

Ion Theatre had a competent opening night, but it lacked fire. The performers sided away from playing Irish stereotypes, but at the cost of lively eccentricities. A fairly wide gap lay between the two, which actors could narrow before reducing their roles to obvious types.

Wearing Jennifer Braun Gittings’s textured brown costumes, Jason Connors and Walter Ritter anchor the cast as Billy, who courageously makes “a try for something,” and Johnnypatteenmike, who’s been trying to murder his mother, with drink, for decades, and for whom the truth must never intrude on a good story.

The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams
Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Avenue, Coronado
Directed by Robert Smyth; cast, Deborah Gilmour Smyth, Sean Cox, Sarah Zimmerman, Jason Heil; scenic design, Mike Buckley; costumes, Jeanne Reith; lighting, Nathan Peirson
Playing through May 24; Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-437-6050.

The Cripple of Inishmaan, by Martin McDonagh
Ion Theatre, Lyceum Stage, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown
Directed by Glenn Paris; cast: Rich Carrillo, Jason Connors, Dana Hooley, Morgan Hollingsworth, Trina Kaplan, D’Ann Paton, Charlie Riendeau, Walter Ritter, Morgan Trant; scenic design, Claudio Raygoza and Matt Scott; costumes, Jennifer Braun Gittings; lighting, Raygoza; sound, Matt Lescault-Wood
Playing through May 10; Wednesday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-544-1000.

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