Like many, I studied Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie when I was at school over thirty years ago. I loved the play but it took until tonight for me to actually see a production and what a production it was.
Perhaps more than semi-autobiographical, this is an exquisitely detailed memory play, but are memories fact, or simply a version of the truth that brings us comfort. Written from the viewpoint of narrator Tom Wingfield, this is a play inhabited by some of the most beautifully drawn characters. Amanda Wingfield, faded Southern Belle, abandoned by her husband, she now spends her time ensuring the happiness of her children. She is devoted but there is a panic about her that her daughter will be left totally ill-equipped to deal with life when she is gone. Laura Wingfield, who is socially awkward and has a slight limp from a childhood case of Plurosis, her only joy a collection of old Victrola recordings and a collection of glass animals (here represented by a solitary Unicorn), Tom Wingfield, the brother and son who is slowly being smothered and burdened by his mother. Longing to write, he is consigned to working in a warehouse, but his nightly excursions to the “movies” hint at more and Jim O’Connor, a work colleague of Tom’s and former high school infatuation of Laura. For Jim, the years following High School have been less than kind.
Cherry Jones makes for a glorious Amanda. Programme notes mention that she was hesitant to play the role, but thank goodness she did. She inhabits the role of faded matriarch so beautifully. She dominates and her transition to Southern hostess for the arrival of the gentleman caller and her domination of conversation with Jim is something to behold, fearing what he might say if he is allowed to speak. Reading the text oh so many years ago I could not have envisaged a better Amanda. She is no victim, she is determined, a force of nature and a grafter. Nothing is as easy as it could have been but she gets on with it.
Michael Esper as Tom makes for a wonderful Narrator, you are fully aware that things may not have been exactly as portrayed and that there is no doubt at times that Tom is made to appear faultless, he is perhaps at his most real when recounting his nightly trips to his sister, and there is a brief moment that hints at his attraction to men in a small scene on the balcony with Jim. The body language of the two is so subtle but leaves little doubt that something here is not right but memory is good for glossing over such things.
As Laura, Kate O’Flynn is isolated, fragile and awkward. Her presence, speech patterns and physicality leave you with little doubt that her future is grim. Only coming to life for a brief moment in the presence of Jim, she is quick to revert to her inferior, awkward state. The moments after a life changing kiss show her as if stabbed by the horn of her glass unicorn – silent devastation.
Brian J Smith plays gentleman caller Jim. He borders on bombastic but seems also fraught with hidden pain. Subtle hints are provided through his self-improvement mantra that perhaps his public facade masks unhappiness. His scene with Laura is beautifully played, engaging, coaxing and yet with a final devastating blow.
Each of these characters is beautifully woven into this St Louis family tapestry. Rich, vibrant, sad, it never falters, it’s compelling, haunting and sad. Bob Crowley has this family floating in a memory bubble, a black void where characters appear magically but living in a space where their every action is reflected in a moat of black reflective oil-like sludge. The two rooms of existence for this family has a sepia, antique tint to it thanks to Natasha Katz’s wonderful lighting. The only moments of colour and light come from the glass unicorn catching the light and the light from the dance hall overlooked from the small landing.
Director John Tiffany and Movement Director Steven Hoggett use the text and the actor’s physicality to give this production an ethereal quality. Elegant, simple and beautiful, it is a joy to behold and is still haunting me.
The two hours course of this play went by as fleetingly as a memory and I left the theatre, remembering just how much I loved this play and thinking how lucky I was to have seen such an outstanding production of it. I’m sitting writing this review having already decided that a second and possibly a third visit is definitely in order.