The Glass Menagerie is the first of American playwright Tennessee Williams’ successes, and the Festival presents a faithful adaptation at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre.
Intimate pre-show interaction from Andre Sills and clever set design quietly draw the audience into the explosive lives of the Wingfield family.
Tom Wingfield (Sills) is the family’s breadwinner, whiling his days away at a local factory for a pittance. Tom’s mother, Amanda (Allegra Fulton), pines for her youth, her servants and her father’s rich plantation in Louisiana. Tom’s sister, Laura (Julia Course), is affected by a crippling physical disfigurement that leaves her bereft of confidence or ambition. Laura has become a pitiable thing to her mother, and Amanda’s only solution is for a “gentleman caller” to whisk the girl away into domesticity, and free Tom from his burden of support. Unfortunately for the family, things do not improve when Tom brings Jim (Jonathan Tan) to dinner with the ulterior motive of setting him up with Laura. Ultimately, the failure leads Tom into the very cycle that led to this dreadful situation in the first place. Like his father, he contemplates simply abandoning the family.
Williams, like other American writers in the post-depression and post-war tradition, chooses to focus on the meek and despairing citizenry. By sheer numbers it is their world more than it is the world of presidents, kings, and corporate owners. It is fitting that the Shaw has chosen to exhume The Glass Menagerie today, when many millennials are forced back home with their parents, whose own incomes have stifled due to decisions beyond them. The family unit is often not what’s been sold to them by those ivory-towered American dreamers.
The Glass Menagerie reminds anyone who yearns for the past that it was fraught with the same class lines that exist today, just with a different flavour, and Williams leaves out any comment about racial or gendered lines of the 40s. Often criticized for being too autobiographical (and I apologize to fans of Williams, as he won’t escape that here), Williams’ own privilege is on full display. Amanda, who the play notes attends DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) meetings, longs for her family’s former glories. Yes, Amanda’s family is now poor, but when her grown son is the sole breadwinner, her daughter is considered so fragile from her ailments as to excuse her from contributing, and she sells magazine subscriptions infrequently . . . well, it begs some questions.
Williams treats these characters with nobility because, as the play notes in detail, they are largely pulled from Williams’ life. Tom shares his name with the author (Tennessee being a pen name), and Tennessee’s sister suffered from similar ailments as Laura. Yet, despite the play’s focus on finding Laura a “gentleman caller,” apparently a term already outdated in 1944, Tom bears the majority of the emotional burdens. Williams putting his own life on display in The Glass Menagerie has certain consequences, and with his “poetic realism” such a prominent feature, he tends to use exaggerated dialogue excessively and comes across as self-absorbed. I left the theatre thinking Williams had maybe too high an opinion of himself (that may be putting it nicely).
The Shaw cast delivers, however. Sills is exceptional as Tom, revelling in the quiet moments of sibling camaraderie with Course as Laura, but not holding back during the explosive moments between Tom and Amanda, or his moments of debauchery.
As Laura, Course is captivating, internalizing and externalizing Laura’s fragility in a great physical performance. When Laura finally realizes how internal her fragility is, Course brings new life to the character, yet, in Tennessee Williams fashion, it’s extinguished all too quickly.
“Gentleman caller” Jim (Jonathan Tan) appears as a brief entanglement in the Wingfield story, yet his impact cannot be dismissed. Tan as Jim is the future. He is the progressive world that is quickly forgetting the Wingfields. He’s crafted a plot to study public speaking and radio technology at night school, after full days of work with Tom, and build that into a career as a business executive or even in television. Tan plays him effectively as a fast-talking paragon of the future — ambitious, excitable, creative and ultimately ignorant of working class struggles. He is Mark Zuckerberg or any other Silicon Valley royalty, exploring his newest ventures but forgetting the human cost. Jim nicknames his friends, forever displacing their real names for his fabrications, and in a brief, fateful moment forgets even his own reality in favour of an emotional indulgence that furthers the Wingfield nosedive into despair.
Amanda, the matriarch of the family, is fascinating. Allegra Fulton brings the full emotional range of a character who was raised to perform southern hospitality at all costs. As Tom continually challenges her, she breaks down and sees the world is not at all what she remembers. In realizing Amanda’s failure, Fulton presents her cracking facade. Her voice will crack ever so slightly, or her laugh will squeak, hoping to use southern hospitality to mask her true self.
While Williams filled The Glass Menagerie with flowery dialogue, he was wise to let the characters also enjoy quiet, familial moments. Considering the Shaw’s clever set design, we’re allowed to listen in as Tom and Laura giggle amongst themselves while Amanda may be in another room, desperately trying to hold everything together. The central placement of the stage, though absent the claustrophobic walls of a small apartment, is still strikingly intimate. We certainly feel as if we’re watching a small family in duress in their space, not a stage. This is effortlessly complimented by the effective lighting design of Mikael Kangas and direction of Laszlo Berczes, including great use of natural candlelight in the second act.
Mileage on The Glass Menagerie may vary. Williams is simultaneously current and outdated, but the Shaw Festival’s rendition is strikingly, hauntingly beautiful. Its tragic course is a lesson in fragile, fractured heroes of an America emerging out of the Second World War that is all too willing to sacrifice those who aren’t willing to catch up, and the unseen human costs of excitable progressivism.