The Glass Menagerie
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A drama by Tennessee Williams

Directed by Patricia Richardson

22nd to 27th October 2012 at 7.45pm



 

Synopsis:

This play by one of America’s most successful playwrights was premiered in Chicago in March 1944 and was his first successful play.
 
It is a memory play that recounts the break up of a family living in a tenement in St Louis in the 1930’s.


The Cast:

Amanda Wingfield
:
Louise Thomas
Tom Wingfield
:
Anthony Henson
Laura Wingfield 
:
Alicia Shore
Jim O'Connor 
:
Tom Adamson

Review:

LIKE Noël Coward, Tennessee Williams is one of those playwrights whose works are often known more by reputation than through close familiarity. As such, staging his plays contains potential traps for the unwary or lazy director and actors. Pat Richardson’s production confidently, adroitly and sensitively avoids such pitfalls, giving us an evening characterized by fidelity to text and sub-text.

Drawn from elements within his own family life, ‘The Glass Menagerie’ is a reworking of one of Williams’ own short stories, a memory play narrated by Tom, one of three members of the Wingfield family who, with “gentleman visitor” Jim O’Connor, make up the cast. Set in St Louis, the play lends itself to the intimate staging offered at BLTC’s Jameson Road theatre, the action taking place within the faded, cramped apartment in which the family live and on the steps outside, the latter the location for Tom’s intermittent and reflective narration, as well as confronting us with, apparently, the only physical means of escape from the claustrophobic cocoon spun by a mother who clings selectively to the fragments of a more elegant and optimistic past while yearning for and at times trying to construct a more fulfilling future for her son and daughter. Alastair Griffith’s suitably grey design works well on both literal and symbolic levels. Equally, the costumes capture and reflect the inner personalities of the characters, notably, in the second half, Amanda’s despairingly youthful gown, the dress in which she effectively gift-wraps her daughter and the powder blue suit that all too deceptively presents us with the unwitting object of her – and, briefly, Laura’s – hopes.

In the first half, a series of short scenes accumulatively establishes the characters of and the relationships and tensions between the three family-members. Amanda Wingfield, the mother, has been sole parent to her son and daughter since her husband – whose portrait, significantly, still occupies a dominant position within the apartment – abandoned her years ago. From the outset, Louise Thomas conveys Amanda’s all-consuming sense of longing – for the comforts of her “Southern belle” youth, for a similarly profitable future for her son and for a gentleman to bring happiness into her daughter’s lonely, withdrawn existence. She is at times stridently manipulative, imploring and coaxing, successfully interweaving a genuine and sympathetic passion with an infuriatingly controlling will. As with her fellow cast-members, her performance was convincing, controlled and consistently believable. Perhaps, particularly in a greater relish for some of the self-consciously descriptive language given to her by the playwright, she could further but still subtly highlight the contrast between the “Southern belle” still aspiring within and the worn-down mother that she has become but this is a reservation of degree only in a strong performance.

As a convincingly frustrated and unfulfilled Tom Wingfield, Ant Henson at times loses clarity in key passages of dialogue or narration, the Southern drawl – here, as with all, convincingly avoiding the temptation to overplay – needing to be tempered with greater attention to each word, each consonant in particular. Again, however, this is a matter of fine tuning within a strong, intelligent performance that weaves together Tom’s largely imaginative strengths and aspirations along with his disillusion and desire to follow the (absent) parental example in heading off towards a wider, more exciting horizon.

Less in evidence in the first half, but every bit as important, is Amanda’s daughter Laura. Afflicted with a deformity of the foot – “crippled” is insistently forbidden by her mother until, with an inescapable sense of defeat, she herself lapses into it in the play’s closing stages – Laura has, as her mother discovers, dropped out of her college course and spends her days seeking, in such locations as the local zoo, the beauty, consolation and emotional healing that she finds within her collection of glass animals – ‘The Glass Menagerie’ – within which she is absorbed for much of her time at home. The second half of the play consists of one long scene, broken only by a meal to which Tom has, at his mother’s urging, invited a work colleague, embodiment of Amanda’s hopes for her daughter’s marital prospects. Much of this scene is occupied by Laura and the friend, Jim, whom Amanda contrives to leave alone together by candlelight after the failure of the electric lighting. Supportive and unobtrusive throughout, Alastair Griffith’s lighting design here becomes positively magical, matched by the playing of the two characters whose interplay it enriches.

Laura could easily be depicted as a one-dimensional object of pity, “crippled” as much emotionally as physically, and the temptation to overload the role with emotion has to be avoided. Quite simply, Alicia Shore succeeded completely in revealing Laura as a complex, genuinely sympathetic and, consequently, a profoundly moving character, created without recourse to superficial gimmickry. Physically, she avoided overplaying the ever-present limp, albeit that her two falls were perhaps only mostly convincing. In her judgement of the power of stillness and silence on the stage, in her beautifully balanced portrayal from within of emotional fragility and in a performance that, throughout, was characterised by unselfconscious attention to detail, she was heartbreakingly absorbing. As obvious as it might be to point out the symbolic use of her glass animal figurines as externalised representations of Laura’s own fragility, Alicia Shore’s performance illustrated the power of a performance genuinely growing from within rather than constructed from the surface down.

In Thomas Adamson’s Jim, we are presented with a character whose student days as a big fish in a little pool are repeatedly alluded to by Laura and Tom but who now finds himself in a dead-end job, engaged, seemingly more by passive acquiescence than through any positive desire, seeking to better himself through evening classes in radio engineering, a pursuit contrasted with Laura’s childlike tinkering with her glass animals and make-believe world. His portrayal provided an excellent match to that of Alicia Shore as he reveals the ordinariness of the young man in whom Amanda has invested so much potential for salvation. The irony of his being the one boy to whom Laura was, while at school, attracted underscores his homespun psychological insights: these are  kindly meant but, as he himself realizes, he cannot build on them with Laura so that, as his gentle promptings encourage Laura to unfold like a delicate blossom, there is an unromanticised  recognition, encapsulated within the fate of Laura’s favourite unicorn, that there are limitations to their encounter. The final moments of their scene together fully realize, without overdoing, the potential for pathos within Williams’ writing.

Four excellent performances, a sensitive design and direction that displays throughout a deftness of touch in bringing to the stage a clear realization of the play make this a wonderful evening. If there are still tickets available, try to snap one up before the play ends its run on Saturday.

Philip Vivian
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