Tom Wingfield is in a battered and bitter state emotionally.
His dad left their family years ago, he’s working a job he hates and his mother is constantly berating him.
It’s a depressing situation that serves as the basis of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” now playing at Pioneer Theatre Company, a production that excels thanks to a small cast of players who obviously understand the depth of their characters.
Williams based the story on his own life and family, according to information from the theater, and the play, set in 1937 in St. Louis, is told from the perspective of Tom (played by Zachary Prince). He lives in tight quarters with his mother, Amanda (played by Nance Williamson), and sister, Laura (played by Hanley Smith), and is still picking up the pieces of the fragile emotional state his father left behind years before when he abandoned the family.
Tom dreams of being a poet but continues working at a local warehouse to pay the bills. Meanwhile, Laura, who has a limp and is incredibly shy, hides herself in her menagerie of glass animals to avoid reality, and Amanda lives in her memories of the past while also seeking to live vicariously through Laura.
It’s a dreary day-to-day existence for the family as each waits and wishes for a better life that seems unattainable. But a glimmer of hope comes when Tom finally gives in to his mother’s prodding and invites an acquaintance from the warehouse (Jim, played by Logan James Hall) over for dinner, and Amanda sees Jim as the gentleman caller destined to whisk Laura away.
Tom is both a part of the story and narrator, a dual role Prince fills with ease. He delivers Tom’s poetic perceptions with a smooth, rhythmic cadence that is instantly captivating and reflective of the character’s desire to be a great writer. He effectively portrays Tom’s jaded attitude, weighed down from years of being the strong one in the family.
Smith’s Laura provides a contrast to Prince’s Tom, and the two capture a sweet bond between siblings. Smith’s portrayal shows depth to Laura, making it evident her shyness is not shallow but is instead a result of fear of disappointing her mother and a life of unrealized hopes for herself and her family.
Jason Simms’ scenic design is sparse but generally effective, with period pieces of furniture throughout the space and a picture of Tom and Laura’s father as a centerpiece of the room, making his influence loom constantly both figuratively and literally over the family.
But the highlight of the production is Nance Williamson’s Amanda. Under Williamson’s hand, the character is much more than simply a nag. Yes, she’s constantly correcting Tom with critiques on how he eats, sits and spends his time, but the emotion with which Williamson reflects on the past reveals the pain of multiple deep disappointments, a desire for her children to have the best and a denial of the possibility that she might not know what’s best.
Those unfamiliar with the play may be pleasantly surprised by the quick wit scattered throughout — a welcome change of pace from the somewhat grim tone pervasive in the story — and Williamson’s delivery of such lines reveals a mastery of comedic timing.
Content advisory: According to PTC, the play does not contain any sexual or violent content but does portray two characters smoking, one profanity and a few exclamatory oaths. The theater recommends the play for ages 10 and older as "younger children might be bored."