BWW Review: THE GLASS MENAGERIE, Arcola Theatre
Tennessee Williams's first success The Glass Menagerie lands at Arcola Theatre in an exciting and tremendously thought-provoking production directed by Femi Elufowoju jr. It's 1937 in St Louis. Amanda Wingfield (Lesley Ewen) desperately hopes that her two children will start leading a more stable and independent life.
While the aging woman lives in a past made of suitors and debutantes worrying about the future of her unmarried daughter Laura (Naima Swaleh) - a shy and scarred young woman who spends her days polishing her glass trinkets - and the rebellious Tom (Michael Abubakar), her motherly wishes grapple with their individuality.
The director takes the revered play and changes its context entirely, placing it right into the heart of the African American community. This is not an unprecedented instance but it remains uncharted terrain in mainstream modern theatre. He steers away from colourblind casting in order to relocate the story to a distinct cultural pool. His take is gentle and sublimely detailed but settles solidly in its address.
He creates a beautifully specific atmosphere with Rebecca Brower's rich set design featuring Southern chic décor that works on multiple levels due to the Arcola's natural architecture. Even though the thrust stage might not be the most ideal in terms of visual reception - as the view from the shorter lateral sides might be slightly impaired by their position - the structure of the set helps Elufowoju jr avoid stillness when he focuses the spotlight on the text.
He does so with the help of Arnim Friess's lighting design, which centres the attention on single happenings and imperceptibly alters the mood through temperature changes as well as focal movements. This highlights the performances of the nearly spotless cast. Ewen brings to the table an exceedingly coquettish and farcically dramatic aging Southern belle who's made an art out of frivolity. She's overbearing and stifling as a mother, building up the slightly dysfunctional family dynamics from the very start.
She is the polar opposite of Swaleh's Laura, who's demure and meek in the face of the world. It's a not-too-brilliant professional stage debut for the young actress, who delivers an appropriately whiny and subdued character but doesn't explore her struggle as much as she presents it as it is. Her introduction to Charlie Maher's Jim is effective but feels somewhat forced even in the face of a noteworthy response to his boisterous and confident personality.
He is blasé and all-American in his portrayal, offering a frustratingly annoying young man who thrives on adulation and believe he's on his way to conquer the world. Abubakar is the definite star of the show as Tom. He is the glue that holds all the other acts together: as the narrator, he sets up the unreliability of the account impeccably, addressing his audience with deferential familiarity which becomes a powerhouse of a performance.
The strength of the production doesn't merely lie in its presentation. Elufowoju jr explores new territory within the original material, bringing the established matter of the plot to thought-provoking levels. For instance, by keeping the character of Jim solidly anchored to his Irish-Catholic roots, he adds another drop to an already multi-faceted reflection on culture, background, and ethnicity.
Williams's play looks even more accomplished and well-rounded through Elufowoju jr's vision. He lets the playwright speak to a new generation using the traditional elements of his own work but at the same time opening it up to new interpretations and allowing a new outlook to break through.
Photo credit: Idil Sukan