Belvoir Theatre has produced a poignant and beautiful revival of Tennessee Williams’ 1943 autobiographical play The Glass Menagerie. The production is faultless. Director, Eamon Flack and his cast, have delivered this piece of theatre with utmost sensitivity, an intelligent understanding of the play’s core and a refined and delicate creative touch.
This production shows the immense pain that burdens us to the point of madness when we are unable to bust out from a circumstance we know is destroying us. It sheds light on ambition and the desire to “rescue oneself from the clumsy oblivion of ordinary life,” as Flack puts it in his director’s note. With sharp interpretation of character, the actors display what it is to project venom and affection all at once within a few choice sentences towards those we love.
This play was written at the dawn of Williams’ success as a writer. He had just, only four years before, adopted the name Tennessee in place of his birth name, Tom, in his attempt to reinvent himself as a serious writer. He was thirty-two and finding it difficult at home with his family and community as he was a struggling poet and homosexual; struggling because both were undeniably a part of him and because he had no means to reveal either identities to those around him.
Wiiliams’ plot follows Tom Wingfield/Williams (Luke Mullins) who works in a warehouse, but wants to write and also enter into a relationship with Jim O’Connor (Harry Greewood) the high school hero who can’t quite manage to fulfil the promise he seemed to display at school. Tom invites Jim to dinner for the sheer pleasure of having him closer to him, under his own roof, and at the same time he can get his mother, Amanda (Pamela Rabe) off his back as she demands that Tom find a suitable husband for his sister, the gentle and ‘different’ Laura (Rose Riley) and then he may escape to whatever it is he yearns for. The evening arrives and then this cast masterfully builds up the suspense all the way to the finale of the play.
Rabe plays Amanda like a ferocious bullet train in the guise of a convivial Puffing Billy train. Amanda has ambition but she knows her limitations and that of those around her. Rabe badgers, attacks, begs and shows vulnerability with consummate skill. The extreme lengths this mother goes to get her own way makes Joan ‘Mommie Dearest’ Crawford look like a welcoming librarian at a school open day. The scene where Amanda enters the room attempting to look like the wind swept Southern Belle she once was turns out to be a laugh out loud scene. Rabe never takes liberties with this monumental character – even when this was the final performance of a long and well-received run. Amanda’s desire to improve her station and see her offspring do well in life is beautifully portrayed by Rabe. Amanda’s son Tom and daughter Laura are damaged in her eyes but she refuses to let this get in the way of advancing her dream of decent social standing. The supporting cast is fantastic. Laura’s incapacity to socialise is cleverly portrayed by Riley. Riley brings out all the difficulties of a person suffering from mental distress.
The play is a dream, a thread of elusive memory. Williams emphasizes this at the beginning, with his narrator, the Tom of the play, likening himself to being the opposite of a magician, ‘[the magician].. gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth, I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.’ The creative team put into place music, lighting, projections on screens either side of the set and use of camera to engender this dreamlike feel. At intervals throughout the play, a camera’s close-up of the character would feature on each screen, the movement of the mouth was out of sync with the actor’s delivery on lines giving it an old fashioned, early cinematic look and also the enhancing the dreamlike quality.
Mullins shows delightfully just how much trouble Tom had in telling the truth. He portrays Tom’s ineptitude regarding his personal pain and desire so convincingly and so tenderly but with the ingredient of humour that Williams’, we can be certain, demanded. The final, exquisite monologue, ‘I didn’t go to the moon, I went much further…’ was a beautiful end to a production that does justice to a seminal play of the 20th century.
The Glass Menagerie
By Tennessee Williams.
Belvoir Theatre Company
Surry Hills, Sydney
Photo credit: Brett Boardman
Reviewed on Sunday November 2nd.