“After watching several productions of this classic drama across a lifetime, for me, the Grand Theatre’s production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie is definitive.” – Burke Campbell
Tennessee Williams’ semi-autobiographical drama, The Glass Menagerie, premiered in 1944, nearly 75 years ago. It is a simple story. Amanda, an aging Southern belle, deserted by her husband, lives in a dingy apartment in St. Louis, Missouri, along with her children, Tom and Laura. Laura, partially lame and chronically shy, attends business school while brother Tom spends his days toiling in a shoe manufacturing plant. In an attempt to snare her handicapped daughter a better life, Amanda pressures Tom to find Laura a “gentleman caller”, a suitable man who will marry and care for her. Amanda, a formidable parent, constantly reminds her children that in her youth, she was endlessly pursued by hordes of eligible suitors. She chose one, their father. This proved to be her one big mistake. He abandoned Amanda, and his children to their fate.
This, in a nutshell, is The Glass Menagerie, a work that instantly became a classic of the American stage. But out of hundreds of family dramas, why has this one endured?
Part of its success lies in Williams’ gift of language. The writer was raised in the American South, where the spoken word carries the cadence of the Bible. Too, Williams was schooled in “gossip”, which shapes information into stories through repetition, inventiveness, and dramatic delivery. Gossip must also entertain, instruct, and draw the listener deeper into described events. By use of language, the playwright created a knowing and spoken music for the stage.
The Glass Menagerie is a “memory play”, drawn from events in Williams’ own life. Tom (based on the playwright himself) doubles as both the play’s narrator and a character in it. But the play is not merely a tale of events recalled. Profoundly, it portrays memory as an active and determining force in our existence. Memory can be a deceitful mirror of how we view our lives. What we remember and how we choose to see ourselves in memory often determines the path of all of our relationships. Memory itself is the central character in this drama — faceless, ghostly, and enormously powerful.
Most productions I’ve seen of this work, on stage, film, and television, have been overly reverential, plodding, and shorn of fun. But the minute we enter into the McManus Stage at the Grand Theatre, we anticipate a radically new approach. The work is presented in-the-round, with the audience encircling the stage. The space feels both intimate and expansive. Above us floats a gorgeous rope of babbles, purple lights, reminiscent of a strand of large pearls or of intersecting circles. This abstract shape comes to symbolize many lines in the play. As in memory itself, one object suggest one meaning, and later, another.
The action takes place in the 1930s, in the dreary apartment where the family lives. Traditionally, The Glass Menagerie is presented on a set, dimly lit; cluttered with furnishings. But for this production, designer Nick Blais leaves the stage mostly bare, only appointed with a few key items. In freeing the stage of a “realistic” look, we can more clearly focus on how memory functions. How it can both illuminate and falsify events. This gives the drama a greater echo, an echo amplified by the dreamscape of sound and music that designer Christopher Stanton provides.
Most important, director Megan Watson understands the “tone” of the work, and pays close attention to each line in the text. This is a very “talky” play, and Watson cultivates the vibrant humour of the work, as well as its abundant zaniness. The director’s attention to the comic elements in the drama makes this production both delightful and devastatingly poignant. Everything comes together under her artful orchestration, revealing the power, meaning, and intent of the words. This is one of the clearest examples I’ve seen of a directorial hand taking on a classic, brushing away old ideas, and fully revitalizing it.
Sarah Orenstein, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Amy Keating, and Alexander Crowther — all accomplished actors — are each incandescent in their parts. But what is so wondrous is how effortlessly they work together, their interaction as flawless as the subtle music and thoughtful lighting that floats about them.
This Glass Menagerie will have a successful run. My only hope is that it tours, or at the very least, comes to Toronto. This is a production that deserves filming, as an example of the splendid talent this country has produced. Everyone associated with this show should be very proud, including the Grand Theatre’s Artistic Director, Dennis Garnhum. In fact, the city of London, Ontario, should realize it is creating theatre as important and sophisticated as anything done in much larger centres.
All photos provided by The Grand Theatre.
© Burke Campbell