05/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Stage Door: The Glass Menagerie, When The Rain Stops Falling, West Side Story

Tennessee Williams is a poet of fragile beauty and faded dreams -- and in The Glass Menagerie, his 1944 breakthrough production, he marries lives of not-so-quiet desperation to the unexpectedly humorous moment. The current revival at the Roundabout's Laura Pels Theater breathes new life into a beloved classic; the performance, led by the indomitable Judith Ivey, is extraordinary.

Ivey plays Amanda Wingfield, mother to crippled daughter Laura (Keira Keeley) and dreamer son Tom (Patch Darragh), with a spirited air that captures the vivacious Southern beauty who once entertained 17 gentlemen callers. Reduced to a shabby St. Louis tenement, Amanda is a deposed queen who rules with the nervous energy of the dispossessed. This is the first production of Menagerie I've seen that exquisitely underscores the horrible price she pays for her dependency on unreliable men. She flits and charms and demands with a fierceness born of desperation. Her only goal is a husband for her daughter.

Yet all the Wingfields have been crippled by cruel circumstance: Tom, trapped in a mindless job, longs for adventure; Laura, his obsessively sensitive, ethereal sister, retreats into silence and her glass animals. Their hopes rest on one night, when Tom brings Jim (a wonderful Michael Mosley), to dinner. In act two, which is achingly touching, Jim, the eager but unwitting gentleman caller, will draw Laura out of her shell, and the redemptive power of love will flicker, however briefly, in candlelight.

Gordon Edelstein has directed Williams' memory play with great finesse. The horrors of poverty and familial abandonment are written across Tom's face and made manifest in Amanda's maniacal urgings. Darragh plays Tom with sensitivity and care, wearing his frustration and guilt like a worn suit. Keeley's Laura shows the yearnings this thwarted girl possesses. Ivey, who superbly played Ann Landers in The Lady With All The Answers last fall, again demonstrates her versatility. Her Amanda is the yardstick by which all should be judged.

The current drama at the Mitzi Newhouse, Lincoln Center, also traffics in family sorrow. This 80-year saga is strangely compelling but relentlessly grim. When the Rain Stops Falling confronts a family poisoned by original sin; the horrors of the first generation taint all succeeding ones. The play, set in England and Australia, opens in a rainstorm -- and the weather, which appears to be perpetually awful -- is drowning all hope.

Because the action travels back and forth in time, Rain, which features a talented, nuanced cast, demands total concentration. The play opens as a lone, disheveled man (Michael Siberry) bemoans his fate. He is about to meet his son, whom he hasn't seen since the boy was seven. Eager to make an impression, he cleans his house. But he can never get it sufficiently clean; a sentiment that will echo across time.

Rain has many interrelated stories, the first is Gabriel Law (Will Rogers) whose tormented mother (Mary Beth Hurt) knows why his father (Richard Topol) left, but keeps his secret. Old postcards lead Gabriel to Australia, where he meets Gabrielle (Susan Pourfar), played as an older version of herself by Victoria Clark. Their stories fatefully collide.

Abandonment, thwarted love and betrayal are terrible legacies. And as various men and women (played with quiet power by Clark and Hurt) traverse this bleak emotional landscape, suffering becomes the overarching refrain. Director David Cromer, whose Adding Machine and Our Town were staged with originality and flair, is an apt choice for Andrew Bovell's gut-wrenching production. Rain posits a universe where the sins of the father are sometimes visited on the sons.

When the revival of West Side Story opened last year at the Palace, the show was reviewed in this column and labeled a triumph. It is a flawlessly staged, gorgeously composed musical. Lean sets and nuanced lighting underscore the musical's essence: a story of sexual obsession. Two teenagers Tony and Maria meet at a dance and the erotic spark between them will ultimately inflame their world, where two rival street gangs -- The Jets and The Sharks -- compete to the death for a tiny piece of Manhattan turf.

This production uniquely added Spanish to the dialogue and a few songs, which kicks up the realism. It also found an extraordinary cast. And though Tony-nominated Marie (Josefina Scaglione) and Tony winner Anita (Karen Olivo) will stay through the summer, Tony is now played by Matthew Hydzik. Hydzik has tough shoes to fill; Matt Cavenaugh, the original Tony, had great chemistry with Scaglione, and gave a heartfelt performance.

Hydzik is up to the challenge. For openers, he looks like a 1950s teenager and is possessed of a lovely singing voice. He slips effortlessly into the role; his passion for Maria clicks. Scaglione's performance continues to be inspired, as is George Akram's fiercely proud Bernardo. In fact, West Side Story, which has accommodated several cast changes, including Riff (John Arthur Greene) and Natalie Cortez as an occasional (and terrific) Anita, remains as fresh and vibrant as it did on opening night in March 2009. The star-crossed lovers were right: "Somewhere, there's a place for us" -- and it's in the audience at the Palace Theater.