Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, May, 2007
For deeply personal reasons, Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie is a very difficult play for me to sit through. But in this line of work it is also one that I have to sit through frequently. There have been times when this play has made me very angry and times when it has made me very sad. So I was baffled to discover that I had no visceral response to the production currently playing on the Unicorn Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. Did my lack of reaction mean that the production was especially bad, or especially good? Or simply that I, personally, had moved past the point where the story affected me.
After much soul searching I have concluded that my reaction centers on Aya Cash’s performance as Laura Wingfield. Previous Lauras I have seen were merely pretty girls who limped, and I would become enraged that they were allowed to remain at home, playing with their little glass animals, when I know all too well what the ultimate outcome will be (My family supports and cares for a Laura of our own.) But Cash’s Laura could no more go out into the world, hold a job, marry and raise a family than she could flap her arms and fly to the moon, and it has nothing to do with her “physical defect” which is minimal. Cash showed me a Laura who is crippled on the inside, not just on the outside. And once I understood Laura, the play no longer upset me.
Written in 1944 by Tennessee Williams (1911-1983), The Glass Menagerie, his first commercial success, is an autobiographical work, Williams calls it a “memory play,” in which the author uses the Wingfield family as metaphors for his own birth family. There is not a direct correlation. Williams’ mother, Edwina, and sister, Rose, were very different from Amanda and Laura Wingfield. The narrator and central character of Tom Wingfield is clearly Williams himself, whose birth name was Thomas.
I would hope that this play is still read routinely in high schools across this country. Despite my personal problems with it I know I good script when hear one. Williams depicts each member of the Wingfield family in minute detail. The Gentleman Caller, Jim O’Connor, Williams describes as that “long-delayed but always expected something” that we all hope will come along and effect the change in our lives which we long for and yet find ourselves helpless to initiate. The Wingfields' situation is both specific to them and to the times in which they are living, the Great Depression, and universal. Whether or not the families we were born into or have created have the exact same troubles, they have something similar and everyone can relate.
The action of the play takes place in the Wingfield’s apartment in St. Louis in the middle of the Great Depression. Tom and Laura’s father, a telephone man who “fell in love with long-distance” abandoned his family years ago, and Amanda, a fading southern belle, is doing her best with her two 20-something children, neither of whom is meeting her expectations. Laura spends all her time playing old Victorola records and arranging her “menagerie” of little glass animals. Tom writes poetry and longs for adventure while stuck in a dead-end job in shoe warehouse. Over the course of the play he plans and makes his escape, abandoning Amanda and Laura as his father did before him.
Kate Maguire and her husband, director Eric Hill, have created a hard, cold Amanda. The southern charm radiates only mildly through her lobster-shell of pain and disappointment. Maguire is a very attractive woman, but through the magic of clear-headed acting and direction, make-up, subtly padded costumes designed by Olivera Gakic, and lighting designed by Matthew E. Adelson, she is transformed into a sullen, aging harpy with beetle brows and a thin line of a mouth. Amanda’s love for her children is rendered shallow in this portrayal, which makes the whole play more heartless. I didn’t blame Tom from wanting to escape this harsh mother and pitifully insane sister.
The central action of the play involves the preparation for and arrival of the “Gentleman Caller,” Jim O’Connor. He, too, abandons Amanda and Laura, dashing their hopes, but while he is on the stage he is a beacon of hope for them both. Jim is by far the most likeable character in this play, and the depth of his connection with Laura in the second act is always surprising, which makes his ultimate betrayal (is there really a Betty?) all the more heartbreaking. Here he is played by the very likeable Greg Keller, who projects a gentle loopiness along with Jim’s gung-ho hail-fellow-well met persona.
Cash is a beautiful, slender brunette. In a girl that lovely a slight limp would be nothing to prevent scads of gentleman callers from coming courting, but as I mentioned before, Cash clearly shows us Laura’s inner disabilities. Her horror at having to open the door to Tom and Jim is palpable. When she said that she was sick her face went white and her eyes displayed that terror that comes from being completely out of control. Subsequently, during the charming scene between Laura and Jim, her placid politeness at his chatter turns into a real physical animation when she talks about her glass collection. This is all that poor girl really can relate to – cold, brittle inanimate glass creatures. She can handle no more, either intellectually or emotionally.
I could not warm-up to Tom Story as Tom Wingfield. There was something detached about his performance that made me not care about him. Stop whining and go join the Merchant Marine, I wanted to say. Not that Story’s performance is bad, just bland and unaffecting.
The thing I absolutely hated about this production was Carl Sprague’s set. The Unicorn is a thrust stage and so the set is clearly visible at all times. When I first walked in and contemplated it I quite liked it, especially the massive utility poles loaded with telephone and electrical wires that arched over the Wingfields’ tenement home. Both of those utilities figure prominently in the play and I liked the symbolism. But as the action began I became annoyed by the little box containing the Wingfields’ dining room and kitchenette that Sprague had created upstage. This is a set with a ceiling and walls that run absolutely perpendicular to the front line of the stage area. I understand that this configuration was both symbolic of the “boxed in” life the Wingfields are leading, and practical in that it allowed for one of the two gauze curtains Williams requires in his stage directions (the other being impossible by the very nature of the Unicorn stage), but since the theatre is a thrust, with the audience three-quarters round, the ceiling and walls diminished the sightlines.
But the aspect of the set that really drove me crazy were the signs. There were three of them. One said “HALL” and was supposed to be a part of the sign for the dance hall across the alley which Williams refers to in the script. On the other two – one says “HOTEL” and the other appears to say “EIRON” or “ERION” – the lettering was reversed, as if you were seeing them from behind, which made them difficult to read. I can’t tell you how long I spent deciphering these signs and then puzzling over their significance. What had I forgotten? Well, I hadn’t forgotten anything, they were just there, just there to distract and annoy me. The set should enhance the play by not distracting from it and by positioning the action in a way that enables as much of the audience as possible to have a clear view. Sprague has failed on both counts.
The Glass Menagerie runs through June 30 on the Unicorn Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival (box office 413-298-5536) between Rts. 7 & 102 in Stockbridge. The show runs two hours and forty minutes with one intermission. While it is not suitable for young children, I would encourage you to bring your teens, especially since they will probably have to read Williams in school and theatre should be experienced in live performance as well as mere words on a page.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007