BWW Review: THE GLASS MENAGERIE Shimmers at The Shaw Festival
A pervading air of discontent and general unease looms over the lackluster St. Louis apartment of the Wingfield family in Tennessee Williams memory play, THE GLASS MENAGERIE. The Shaw Festival is presenting this classic with the loving care that it deserves, and the end result is a gripping production. The small stage of the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre presents the play in the round, so the audience intimately surrounds the dreary lives of Williams' characters. Written in 1944, and based on Williams' own family, we meet a down trodden mother and her adult son and daughter. The play is told as the son's memory , looking back 20 years. But the whole family seems to be plagued by all of their memories, whether happy or sad, seemingly leaving their present lives to be played out for naught.
The small ensemble of four is perfectly cast, each inhabiting their roles with conviction and believability. Mr. Williams is a master of creating fascinating Southern women, including Stella in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, Maggie in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, or Alma in SUMMER AND SMOKE. In THE GLASS MENAGERIE he wrote the juicy role of the mother, Amanda, played at the Shaw by Allegra Fulton. Ms. Fulton gives a staggering performance as the aging Southern belle who married poorly and lives life by recounting only her happiest memories of her youth. Without ever being maudlin or overly grandiose, Fulton humanizes Amanda's plight, drawing the audience in towards her deepest desires for her children's happiness. But she is a master of putting on a facade of hope for the future. When the script calls for over the top costume changes and fits of anger, Ms. Fulton handles them the elan one would expect of a well bred woman rather than a caricature.
Julie Course is Laura, the crippled daughter without much education, social graces, or prospects. Ms. Course is a tall thin woman with a head that is perpetually looking downward, fearful to face anyone or anything, save for her treasured glass menagerie of small animals. Here she can escape reality, chatting and playing with the figurines, often leaving the audience to question her mental stability. Most of Act I places her in the periphery, as if trying to vanish from her own painful life. Her mother perpetuates the ideas that a gentleman caller will be appearing at any moment, so the ladies must always be on the ready. Amanda expounds on her own many male suitors, often by the dozens, but whether these stories are facts or concoctions of fantasy is left to the viewer.
Andre Sills is Laura's brother, Tom, the man of the house ever since his father abandoned the family years prior. Tom is a frustrated poet, trapped by his dismal family. Mr. Sills serves as narrator, beginning with the famous "I have tricks in my pocket." And literally Sills chats with the audience prior to the play, performing magic tricks. His banter effortlessly melds into the start of the play as the lights are dimmed. Mr. Sills has a booming voice but can speak in a mellifluous tone when needed. Due to the configuration of the set, he can walk around it's perimeter observing the action, occasionally commenting, or even at times running around it to escape the claustrophobic surrounding. Tom is also trying to escape his own demons nightly by attending the movies, so he tells his mother, but the details of his night life are never made clear.
The only outsider to interlope is Jim, aka the gentleman caller. Early on Laura mentions a boy in high school with whom she was enamored. He was a championship athlete, debater, thespian and all around best in everything, by the name of Jim. Coincidentally Tom now works with him and brings him to supper to meet Laura. All at once, Jim (played by Jonathan Tan) is a breath of fresh air. Mr. Tan brings a natural ease that is in stark contrast to the uptight nature of the Wingfields. Williams adds some levity to the story as Laura and Amanda prepare for the arrival of the gentleman caller. Laura is uncomfortable in her new dress and seems too tall for her high heels, while Amanda wears one of her old debutante dresses, aged with time and now inappropriate for her age . Her hair is done in ringlets and her giddiness make it clear to everyone that Amanda is more thrilled than anyone to have a gentleman caller in her home once again.
Ms. Course quite literally springs to life after an awkward introduction to Jim. Her body language shifts, a grin transforms into smiles and then giggles as Jim coaxes her out of her shell. His declaration that she suffers from an inferiority complex doesn't frighten Laura, but rather she looks to him for his guidance and insight into her shy demeanor. As the evening progresses and an uncomfortable dance and kiss lead to a dream sequence of sorts, Laura becomes carefree and no longer limps and she glides around the auditorium on Jim's arm. But his life has not turned out as expected, being a factory worker who hopes to better himself through night school. When reality sets in again, Jim announces he can't return. Ms. Course's body language is crushing in her despair, only equalled by Ms. Fulton's grasp of the situation. The house is once again plagued with no prospects of happiness or money. Tom can't bear his miserable life anymore and takes to the road, just as his father did.
Director Laszlo Berczes attends to every detail with a keen eye, making sure each character is fully fleshed out, even when they are not part of the onstage action. Laura is constantly fiddling with her menagerie, Amanda daydreams and primps, and Tom lurks on the fire escape. The dreary set by Balazs Cziegler is minimal but suggestive of the low income darkness that surrounds the family, with it's ratty furnishings and drab colors. Costumes by Hanne Loosen are simple but appropriate, while Mikael Kangas' lighting perfectly draws the eye towards the action, even when requiring a candlelit room or near complete darkness.
THE GLASS MENAGERIE has become an American classic thanks to the superb writing of a young Tennessee Williams. His aptitude at dissecting the human spirit and unearthing the darkness that underlies every human being makes his work timeless. Yet with each viewing, the characters in THE GLASS MENAGERIE continue to expose new wounds, deepening the audience's understanding of them. The Shaw Festival's production shines in it's telling the story of the Wingfield family and their gentleman caller.
THE GLASS MENAGERIE plays at the Shaw Festival in Niagara on the Lake through October 12, 2019. Contact shawfest.com for more information.