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The Glass Menagerie: A classic memory play at The Gladstone

By Barbara Popel on November 26, 2014

The Glass Menagerie is Tennessee Williams’ most autobiographical play and, for my money, his best play.

Warning:  For those of you who aren’t familiar with the plot, this review contains a spoiler.

Those of you who are familiar with the plot will likely know it from one of its several film or TV versions, or perhaps even from a Broadway production (the most recent of which closed in February of this year).  It’s set in late 1930s in a dowdy apartment in St. Louis, Missouri.  The characters hew fairly closely to Williams’ family.  There’s Tom Wingfield, the narrator of this “memory play” and a thinly veiled stand-in for Williams himself.  Tom is a frustrated poet stuck in a dead-end job in a shoe warehouse; he’s yearning to break loose and have adventures.   (Williams’ real name was Thomas and he worked for a few years in a shoe factory in St. Louis.)

Tom is the main breadwinner for his family – his voluble mother Amanda, a pretentious Southern belle, and his pathologically shy and fragile sister, Laura.  In real life, Williams’ mother was a neurotic Southern belle with social pretensions, and his older sister, Rose, was mentally unstable.  (In the play, Laura’s nickname from high school is “Blue Roses”.)  Like the Wingfields, Williams’ family had “come down in the world” during the Great Depression (though they hadn’t, like Amanda, had as far to fall).  Like the Wingfields, his father was an alcoholic.

In The Glass Menagerie, Tom narrates his recent past from the chaos of the latter years of World War II.  He tells the audience about his last year living with his family – 1938, I believe.  Back then, he was chafing at his circumscribed life, desperate to escape. He and Amanda fought constantly.  Amanda too was desperate, though in her case it was a desperation to find “a gentleman caller” for Laura who would – as quickly as possible – marry Laura and take care of her.  Perhaps distract her from her obsession with her glass menagerie – her collection of glass figurines – and her father’s old Victrola.

After much prodding from Amanda, Tom invited Jim, a casual friend from the warehouse, home for dinner so Jim could meet Laura.  Laura was beside herself with fear as Jim was the young man for whom she’s carried a torch for 6 years since they met in high school.  Jim, a Dale Carnegie disciple and optimistic “go-getter” barely recalled Laura but nevertheless was kind to her. However, he revealed that he’s already engaged to be married, shattering Laura’s fragile happiness.  After Jim left, Amanda and Tom fought.  Soon after, Tom left St. Louis to join the merchant marines.  Tom the narrator says he remains haunted by the memory of poor Laura.

Williams’ family story was equally pathetic.  In 1943, after an absence from his family, Williams was horrified to learn that Rose had been subjected to a botched lobotomy and had been institutionalized.

Williams’ poetry and passion are evident in his beautiful script.  But it is a demanding script and one which, unfortunately, Bear & Company have failed to do justice to.  It comes down to believability.

I found it impossible to believe that Tom (Tim Oberholzer), Amanda (Rachel Eugster) and Laura (Sarah Waisvisz) had been living together for decades in a tight family relationship.

Their accents were distractingly unbelievable.  Amanda’s Southern belle accent came and went, and was credible during only a few snatches of dialogue.  Tom and Laura sounded solidly Canadian.  Jim (Cory Thibert) at least sounded American.  But all four actors frequently rushed their lines.  I’ve worked with folks from the Deep South; they drawl very slowly.  I had a colleague from Missouri; he spoke rather slowly but with a Midwestern twang.  Sometimes, a director chooses to ignore appropriate accents and lets all the actors use their “natural” voices, but this isn’t a wise choice with this play.  I’m not sure what director Eleanor Crowder instructed her cast to do about their voices, but it didn’t work for me.

Perhaps because of the delivery, there were titters from the audience for lines that weren’t intended to be funny (including Amanda’s use of the words “darkies” and “niggers”) and no laughter at the few funny lines (my favourite being “I’ll rise but I won’t shine”).

Amanda is probably the most difficult of the four characters to play.  Eugster succumbs to the temptation to over-act in the role a few times, most notably in the scene in which Amanda confronts Laura with Laura’s duplicity about dropping out of a business school course months ago.

Laura’s family refers to her as “a cripple”; she wore a leg brace in high school.  So I’m not sure why Crowder has instructed Waisvisz to limp about 20% of the time and to walk with a smooth gait the rest of the time.  Is Laura’s limp psychosomatic?

The actors do, however, do many things right.  Thibert does a fine job as Jim the sunny, brash all-American go-getter, Oberholzer captures Tom’s deep sadness and regret, particularly in his narrative speeches to the audience.  And Waisvisz blossoms like a delicate flower under Jim’s gentle joshing, which makes Jim’s announcement of his impending marriage all the more crushing.

I felt there were some missteps with the sets and costumes vis-a-vis the period the play is set in.  In my opinion, the picture of the absent father should not be a giant photo; large-format photographs were extremely rare in the 1920s.  Nor, in my opinion, should Mr. Wingfield’s picture been that of a very young and goofy-looking WW I doughboy.  He was supposed to have been more handsome and charming than all of Amanda’s 17 gentlemen callers.   Nor would the Wingfields have a fancy boudoir phone in their cold-water flat’s living room.  And in the 1940s, no American man wore his hair as long as Oberholzer’s.

Otherwise, David Magladry’s set design was reasonably serviceable.  But his accompanying music was sometimes distractingly loud on opening night; let’s hope he adjusts the sound levels.  And when Tom is describing the music coming from the Paradise Dance Hall across the alley from the apartment as being slow and romantic, it’s jarring that what we hear is swing jazz music.

The Glass Menagerie seems to be rarely performed in Ottawa.  I don’t know of any other productions in recent years.  A shame, since it’s a lovely classic.  So if you’ve not seen it before, see this production but also search out a DVD of one of the film or TV versions.

The Glass Menagerie is at The Gladstone until December 6.  Information and tickets can be found here.