May 09, 2012

The Glass Menagerie

May 9, 2012

The Glass Menagerie
by Tennessee Williams
State Theatre Company
The Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Theatre
May 8. Tickets $ 25 – $ 59
Bookings : BASS 131 246
Until May 26.

Tennessee Williams called it “the saddest play I have ever written” and, first performed in 1944, The Glass Menagerie is certainly his most autobiographical. “The play is memory”, the narrator, Tom, informs us in the startlingly direct opening address – “Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.” While this is true in part, Williams’ account, of life with his mother and sister in St Louis in the Depression of the mid 1930s, is never mawkish and carries an emotional authenticity which made it an immediate success and still sustains it now.

Caught between duty and a restless sense of destiny, Tom Wingfield works in a shoe factory warehouse to support his mother Amanda, an irrepressible Southern belle who, as she herself says, wasn’t prepared for what the future brought. He also has a fragile sister, Laura, who has retreated into an imaginary world represented by her collection of glass figurines. In despair at his lot, Tom escapes “to the movies”, while his mother contrives one last-ditch plan to find a “gentleman caller” to rescue her daughter from impecunious spinsterhood.

In the final production of his eight year tenure at State Theatre, director Adam Cook has created a Glass Menagerie with all of its theatrical ducks in a row. Victoria Lamb’s clever design, using suspended sections of the tenement décor (as well as providing more literal dining and lounge acting spaces), meets Williams’ own requirement that it be “dim and poetic” while Mark Pennington’s lighting is sympathetic but never sentimental.

The performances are uniformly excellent. Anthony Gooley, as Tom, is a mordant narrator and an abject character, at times unsparingly churlish as he reflects Williams’ guilty self-portrait of a young man ready to cut and run. The playwright cattily describes Jim, the Gentleman Caller, as “a nice, ordinary young man” and Nic English exactly meets the brief. No wonder Amanda gurgles with delight at the sight of him, and his key scene with Laura which awakens her hopes (and that of the audience ) is a highlight.

As Laura, Kate Cheel depicts her painful shyness, her fugitive charm and her quiet rebellion. Like her brother, she is an adult over-stayer in the family home. Maybe, nowadays, she’d be an emo.

It is up to their mother to put a cracker under all this torpor, however misguided her plan, and Deidre Rubenstein’s outstanding performance as Amanda, while capturing the frustrated tiger mother in all her coquettish affectation, also dignifies her heroic effort to turn the tide in the affairs of men.

Murray Bramwell

“Return to the dim rooms where great playwright made his memories”
The Australian, May 10, 2012, p.16.

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