TURLOCK -- Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" is a tragedy about a family that can't bear to face reality.
But director Drew Sutherland's staging at California State University, Stanislaus, isn't all depression and tears. He highlights the dark humor in the script, especially in the interactions between domineering matriarch Amanda Wingfield (Traci L. Sprague) and her smothered adult son, Tom (Josh Bailey).
The Amanda here is an over-the-top eccentric who is impossible to take seriously. She whirls around the room issuing orders and offering uninvited opinions while Tom rolls his eyes and shakes his head.
While there's less desperation and more histrionics than in some other productions, the approach doesn't detract from the effectiveness of the popular play.
A classic of American theater, "The Glass Menagerie" earned Williams critical acclaim after it debuted in Chicago in 1944. He later went on to win Pulitzer Prizes for "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."
"The Glass Menagerie" is told from the recollections of Tom, who serves as both narrator and character.
Now a sailor who has long since left his family, he recalls a time years earlier when he still lived with and financially supported his mother and his shy sister, Laura (Mia Carrick), in a cramped St. Louis apartment.
Eric Broadwater's outstanding set shows the shell of the apartment, with living and dining rooms plus hanging laundry outside, tenements in the background and crumpled newspapers in the street. Everything looks shabby, underscoring the Wingfields' poverty since the father abandoned the family.
At Thursday's opening performance, Bailey seemed a bit unsure of his lines and a little stiff and nervous when he was narrating, but he kicked into gear when he played the scenes with Sprague. We see that he hates his boring job at a shoe factory and that he lives for escape in alcohol and night life.
Sprague's Amanda is the definition of a drama queen, turning every situation into a life-or-death crisis. She can't let her children make any decisions, whether it's how to eat or spend their free time.
Unable to face her less-than- satisfying circumstances, she spends most of her time reminiscing about her youthful glory days as a Southern belle and the handsome boys she used to date. She constantly wonders what might have been if she'd married one of them instead of her children's drunken, faithless father.
Mia Carrick's Laura is appropriately fearful as the Wingfield who is the least well-adapted to the world. She is fragile, just like her favorite glass collection of miniature animals. With her long, unstyled hair and mannish clothing, she is a huge contrast to her ultrafeminine mother.
Dan Mauterer could be more suave as the gentleman caller Jim, the young man Tom brings home to meet Laura. He seems awkward at times, but he has an appealing personality when he relaxes.
Thursday, there were problems with recorded big-band music that went off and on at odd times and sometimes interfered with the dialogue.
Caroline Mercier's 1940s-style clothing looks good, but her most fun piece is the overblown sparkly orange Civil War-era gown Amanda wears for the dinner with Jim.
"The Glass Menagerie" is a classic for a reason and is well worth seeing because of Williams' distinctive poetic language and understanding of dysfunctional family dynamics.
Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2313.