The Glass Menagerie
The Kings Theatre
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
Just as the Beowulf poem is derived from one single Dark Age manuscript saved from a fire in the 18th century, so too did Tennessee Williams’ only copy of his ever-endearing play, The Glass Menagerie, stumble blindly through the pitfalls of fortune into existence. Left in the dorm of a pretty student he was trying to seduce, it was kindly posted back to him, from where it was re-posted to his agent Audrey Wood. Telling him off for the sheer ridiculousness of risking your only copy of your masterpiece to the labyrinthine lottery of the American postal service, Williams replied he would have been able to recreate it from memory – perhaps he would, but certain nuances may have been lost that make the play such a joy to behold.
‘Memory Play,’ in fact, is the term coined by Williams to moniker the The Glass Menagerie – Williams’ first major contribution to dramaturgical excess, explaining through the mouth of Tom Wingfield, ‘The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic. In memory everything seems to happen to music. That explains the fiddle in the wings. I am the narrator of the play, and also a character in it. The other characters are my mother Amanda, my sister Laura and a gentleman caller who appears in the final scenes.‘ In a world where the dysfunctional family is almost the norm, the Menagerie cannot have as much impact as it did when it burst onto Broadway in the 40s. Even so, its themes still resonate, & the encapsulation of the post-modern southern belle in the character of Amanda Wingfield is a museum piece which is a credit to the spirit of the theatrical arts and its ability to bring to life such visions of the past.
It is director John Tiffany’s favorite American play, so when he found himself chatting to Diane Paulus, director of the American Repertory Company, the germ-seed was planted. Then he met his Amanda, casually – the esteemed Broadway actress Cherry Jones with her native southern drawl – a catalytic moment that propelled the idea into orbit, which has just burnt its way through the celestial spheres to land quite parachute-gently onto the Kings Theatre stage. Cherry told the Mumble about her casting; ‘I realized that I am one of the last people of the right age to play the part who actually knew women like that. I was born in Tennessee in 1956, so when I was ten years old the women who were Edwina’s & Amanda’s age were in their late 70s & still vital to our community. I knew them well. They were the church choir directors; they were the little ladies who would invite us for cheese & biscuits & hot chocolate out of demitasse cups; they were women whose fathers & grandfathers had fought in the American civil war.’
Amanda’s daughter Laura is a cripple – although the word is used cautiously in the house – perhaps a polio victim like Roosevelt, we never actually find out the true cause of her limp, which actress, Bury’s own Kate O’Flynn, plays with a Byronic shuffle across the floor. For me, O’Flynn is the real star of this play – her understated yet uncannily accurate portrayal of the insular Laura really does bring the play to life. The story hinges around the household receiving a gentleman caller, a friend of her brother Tom, who like a lamb to the slaughter comes for dinner innocently, the sitcomesque developments about which constitute the mainstay of the second half of the play. The first half is more of a family drama, when we see the abjectly depressing youth of Tennessee Williams in the city of St Louis condensed into an hour of tense dialogue all under the dramatic domination of Amanda, a caricature based his own mother, Edwina Williams. Indeed, after the 1944 Chicago premier of the play, Laurette Taylor – who first played Amanda – met Edwina in the street outside the theatre & asked her,’How did you like yourself?’ — ‘O Laurette, you were wonderful,’ replied Edwina, curtly.
Tom, played by another Broadway stalwart, Michael Esper, is so much Tennessee Williams himself… observing the play in the mid-2oth century must have been the closest to reality television our grandfathers ever got. For starters, Tennessee’s actual name is Thomas Lanier Williams, while ‘Tom’ is a type-writer tapping wannabe author, who haunts the movies as a getaway from his humdrum existence – just like the early Tennessee. Its composition comes from the most creative years of his life, the early 40s when he was wandering North America – Mexico, Hollywood, New Orleans, New York – a time in which the Americans were knocking back they liquor & dancing while the world disintegrated beyond the oceans. This unreal reality, this national decadence, is deftly reviled throughout the play, which is unashamedly satirical without being grotesque.
The set was splendidly laid out – wooden furniture, a telephone a gramophone, & of course the cabinet which contained the glass animals – the menagerie – which Laura spends all her time on cleaning & refining. The performances were sparkling; the constant fussyings of the supercilious, ‘bewildered by circumstance’ ‘I wish we’d wallpapered the walls’ Amanda, the facial expressions of the distance-peering Laura, the tribulations of ‘How lucky dead people are’ Tom desperate to escape, & of course the lovely, moving scenes between Laura & Jim, her gentleman caller (played with a great realism by Seth Mumrich). There is also the finest moment, when Amanda turns up for dinner wearing the same fancy dress she wore as a Blue Mountain debutante to the Governor’s Ball at Jackson, the same dress she met Tom & Laura’s father in – but now the flowers had faded & been removed & the passage of the decades hung heavy in the air. Yes, this, & everything else about the Menagerie forms a vivid portrait of a half-life that haunts us all with a brutal starkness. It is fantasy, I guess, but one drawn from the very rivers of truth.
Reviewer : Damian Beeson Bullen