Absence and disappointment fill Tennessee Williams’s first big successful play The Glass Menagerie, but its appeal rests in the charm of its small family, one room set-up that continues to feel relevant and troubling today. Yet it’s been quite some time since a production has reached the West End despite a well-received version at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2015; A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof come round fairly often, and we even had a rather flat production of In the Bar of the Tokyo Hotel last year at the Charing Cross Theatre, but the complexities of Williams’s 1944 play with its hyper-realised memory-format make it difficult to do well.
The 2013 American Repertory Theatre production of this play has finally made it to London, where it has already received stellar reviews to add to its Tony nominations from Broadway. And all of them are entirely deserved in a production that showcases the complexities of family relationships and pointedly reveals the inner-life of its characters. The one thing you’ll hear over and over again about this play is that it is Williams’s most autobiographical work but how much he has drawn from his own life and experiences in the several years it took to compose this play are debatable, but that is not all there is to say about this remarkable drama.
Set in the Wingfield’s small St Louis flat in an unremarkable tenant block, the narrator Tom lives with his mother and sister in genteel poverty. Tom works at the local shoe warehouse and dreams of freedom from the burden of providing for his family, a burden which takes him to ‘the movies’ every night to escape into the adventure of the silver screen. Matriarch Amanda has cared for her, now adult, children since her husband abandoned them many years before and dreams of receiving a “gentlemen caller” to marry her painfully shy and slightly disabled daughter Laura. Obsessed with her own past glories as a younger woman, Amanda nags and harries Tom until he finally agrees to bring home a friend from work, a night that changes everything.
Where Williams excels as a dramatist is his ability to show an audience what’s going on under the skin of his characters even when their surface demeanour is calm, poised and seemingly repressed. Particularly drawn to people who aspire to a type of gentility they lack or have since lost, Williams characters often burn with an interior passion for something or someone that can never be realised, or if it is will be a fleeting pleasure rather than the much needed change of life. We see this in Blanche who yearns for the respectability of marriage and stability but cannot fight her baser attractions to virile younger men, and we see it in Maggie who tries to be a dutiful daughter-in-law and wife but cannot contain her unrequited passion for her husband and his protection from the machinations of his family.
In The Glass Menagerie, and so beautifully realised in this production, the three primary characters struggle in exactly the same way, having to present one face to the world, to show acceptance and duty, while inside their fantasies of escape and freedom fight to emerge. The dramatic frame is set by Tom who speaks directly to the audience at the beginning from some future time, long after the events the play recounts. These are his memories and ones we are asked not to trust, as they are filled with illusion and his years of regret. Tom (which happens to be Williams’s real name) is then partly an unreliable narrator but also someone we come to view quite differently as events play out.
Initially he seems a steady, reliable young man, worn down by the drudgery of his work who seeks solace for his sensitive soul in writing poetry and going to the cinema. But actor Michael Esper slowly reveals the complexities under the surface, a sense of frustration with his overbearing mother and her constant interference, a rage against the world for forcing him into a life he didn’t want and, somewhat surprisingly, a secret drive to abandon them entirely. It is in the second act that an unexpected darkness emerges in Tom as he fights for his own survival, and in Esper’s performance you get clever hints that Tom is not all he seems, that ‘the movies’ may not be what we think and his interest in Jim the “gentleman caller” is something less wholesome than his family believes.
Similarly sister Laura, played by Kate O’Flynn is a delicate, broken creature, drummed into shyness and a sense of inferiority by the demands of her mother. Obsessed with caring for her collection of glass ornaments, represented here as only one small glass unicorn, Laura we learn has lived a life unfulfilled by work or love, clinging only to the constancy of her fragile collection. And while away from her mother we see her care for her brother’s welfare, it is with the arrival of Jim that O’Flynn allows Laura’s true character to burst into life, as she warms to the gentleness of his treatment, becoming talkative and momentarily happy in his presence. We see that despite her reticence she yearns for the kind of love her mother dreams of for her, something she has always convinced herself was not possible for someone like her. And the audience truly feels for her as the play reaches its conclusion.
In many ways, Amanda is the most complicated role of them all and Cherry Jones’s Tony-nominated performance is a masterclass in Williams’s pushy Southern women. Disguised as a protective instinct, to save her children from vice, Amanda is concerned that the world should see her as a decent, dignified woman. Like her children she has no current friends to speak of, but she revels in memories of her past that seem as real to her in Jones’s performance, as the present day. We never know really what happened with her husband and there are some hints that he was unsuitable, but she focuses on the many offers and admirers she once had, and the dreamlike reality of that earlier happier time. Amanda nags and berates her children, interferes in their business and talks excessively at people, so the audience understands Tom’s need to escape entirely. Yet, Jones still makes her sympathetic, affected by the absence of her husband and the disappointment of a life that promised so much and delivered so little.
Although a relatively small role Jim played by Brian J. Smith, the infamous “gentleman caller” is a sensitive young man who arrives at the Wingfield’s with no expectation of why he’s really there. Williams also gives him a similar sense of internal and external battle as he is drawn to Laura’s sadness and tries to gently nurture her confidence. Smith dominates the few scenes he’s in, as a breath of fresh air that blows through the Wingfield house bringing momentary hope and happiness to everyone inside, which serves to makes the conclusion only feel more emotive.
John Tiffany directs with a deep understanding of the layers in Williams’s play, while cleverly mixing a sense of encroaching reality with the ephemeral nature of memory. Natasha Katz’s lighting design adds to the dreamlike quality of the production and the slightly haunting nature of Tom’s few narrative moments. Bob Crowley’s layers of hexagonal set pitch the three sections slightly out of line with each other, which beautifully reflects how little the three protagonists understand each other, while the whole is cut into by a lightning bolt-shaped fire escape that pierces the Wingfield’s flat and underlines Tom’s concluding speech.
The flat is surrounded by a vast black lagoon which is occasionally lit like stars in moments of hope but seeks to demonstrate the endless emptiness that surrounds all of them, like an island forever cut-off from the outside world. While it works brilliantly as metaphor, it does lose the sense of crowding and claustrophobia that tenement-living induces and is also vital to the play’s subtext. There is little sense of being surrounded by other lives here which is a shame, and the National’s recent take on The Deep Blue Sea had a more suitable solution to the block housing problem.
Nonetheless, this is a masterfully charged production of Williams’s early play, and while the style takes a little while to get used to, it soon draws you into the inner-lives of its lonely protagonists. And while in one sense it is a tiny domestic drama that affects only the four characters we see, it has a universality that is quite affecting. Everyone has lost or never achieved something they wanted, whether it is love, recognition or freedom, and Williams’s creations represent something we can all recognise. The power of this play’s characters, and the American Repertory Theatre’s excellent production, is that all of them are fragile creatures, a glass menagerie that we watch shatter in the hands of the playwright.
The Glass Menagerie is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 29 April. Tickets start at £20 but do note ATG booking fees. Day seats are available from £15 at the box office. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1