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Not your ordinary dinner theatre
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It’s a shame that Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie has become such a cliche in the public mind. Properly done, it’s a powerful and poignant display of minimalism by one of America’s greatest writers in any genre, and the Tybee Theatre Cafe players do a magnificent job of breathing fresh life into the old chestnut in their current run through Dec. 4.

Though set in St. Louis, Mo., Menagerie clearly deals with the twilight of the South in a restless 1930s America poised between depression and world war. These death throes are epitomized by the luckless and insular Wingfield family: matriarch Amanda (Lorrie Scoggins Rumpel), son Tom (Patrick J. Saxon) and daughter Laura (Carmella Christensen).

Let’s get straight to the meat of this review: While this cast is strong all around, I cannot say enough about the warm, understated and very human performances by Scoggins Rumpel and Christensen as mother and daughter Wingfield.

Scoggins Rumpel’s Amanda is a marvel of restraint -- and I don’t use that word in the usual backhandedly complimentary way of the theatre critic. In contrast to the usual caterwauling and overacting you find in most amateur (and many professional) portrayals of this character, she plays down Amanda’s histrionics in favor of a more subtle, naturalistic reading that is a refreshing delight.

Christensen’s Laura is quietly devastating. It’s not until half an hour into the first act that it dawns on you that you’re seeing an amazingly layered and very believable portrayal of this most sweetly pathetic of literature’s wallflowers.

The aspect of Christensen’s performance I appreciate most is not what she says, but how she listens. This skill is particularly noticeable in the essentially one-sided conversation between Laura and Jim the Gentleman Caller (Matt Perez) in Act Two, a long set-piece which is nearly a play within a play.

Laura has little to say in this scene, in which Jim, with the casual cruelty of a former class president, simultaneously builds her up only to tear her back down. But by the end, though it’s Perez’s character that has done most of the talking, it’s Christensen’s presence that has given us a real window into her character’s soul -- just as Tennessee Williams no doubt intended.

Both Saxon and Perez are strong actors with defined stage presence. To be honest, Saxon is almost too strong. His anger is real and believable, his cockiness entertaining and bitingly funny; but the one thing missing in his otherwise well-rounded performance is the bitter, wounded male pride that embodies the sadly emasculated Tom.

Amanda Drescher’s set is wonderful, rising to the aesthetic and logistical challenges of staging a dinner theatre production. Director Fritz Rumpel’s decision to stage the play in the round was no doubt also influenced by the layout of the room, but it works to great advantage, heightening the intimacy of this already painfully intimate little play.

Indeed, much of the dialogue takes place on a sofa centerstage with its back squarely facing the bulk of the audience. You’d think this would alienate playgoers, but the effect is the opposite. In real life we observe a lot of things from behind or from the side, and here’s no different. (Just in case you think I’m nuts, I overheard other playgoers saying the same thing.)

Ah, now you want to know about the food, don’t you? Look, we’re all adults here. If you want fine dining on Tybee Island, I suggest The Hunter House or Georges’ or Tango.

That being said, the Tybee Theatre Cafe serves a solid dinner, with a soup, salad, entree and dessert course, as well as friendly and attentive service.

Alcoholic beverages are over and above the $40 ticket price. While I was initially disappointed that only beer and wine are offered, I must say that not only is the wine selection outstanding, the beer selection is as well -- a particularly nice surprise in this Bud Light-dominated town.

Bottom line: $40 is quite a bargain for a perfectly serviceable dinner followed by a performance of this high caliber. You have two more weeks to check out this fine performance at the Tybee Theatre Cafe, and I heartily recommend doing so.

The Tybee Theatre Cafe performs The Glass Menagerie Nov. 25-27 and Dec. 1-4 above Los Palmas Restaurant at Hwy 80 and Jones Ave. Seating for dinner is between 6:30 and 7:15 p.m., with the show starting around 8 p.m. or so. Call 786-6384 for reservations.