The cast of The Glass Menagerie | Ensemble Theatre

Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie is an invincible play. Or almost. Williams laboured over what proved to be his first hit, which derived from a short story he’d written. Relatively few will know Portrait Of A Girl In Glass, which wasn’t published until after the play hit the Chicago stage, to great acclaim. It was, however, the template for the perspective of the drama, as it, too, elevated Tom Wingfield to narrator. Legend has it that Tom may well be a surrogate for Williams, but the autobiographical quotient is unverifiable. Arguably, however, even the rumour of it lends even greater poignancy.

Regrettably, while Ensemble’s The Glass Menagerie is, in almost every respect, a highly creditable production, it misses the mark.

Firstly, the set (while well-intentioned and, to an extent, designed skilfully and evocatively), is distracting, inasmuch as having built-in a needlessly and curiously laborious switchback of a fire stair that inhibits entries and exits. It’s just odd. OK. So you might come back at me and exclaim, the fire escape is a potent and pivotal symbol and begs emphasis. Sure. No doubt. But this was just poor design, that lent clumsiness, but no literary underline.

Secondly, while dialect coach Natasha McNamara has done a steady job of ensuring the entire cast (of four) sounds convincingly American, she doesn’t sound, at least to my ear, to have gone the extra mile, in instilling a genuinely southern accent, chiefly characterised by that very particular vowel sound.

Thirdly, director Mark Kilmurry, while drawing out his actors to the point of exhibiting quite profound skill (since, one way or another, we end up empathising with all of them, to a lesser or greater extent), at no point seems to draw their characters together, such that we genuinely feel the pervasive, individual and collective claustrophobia of family and worlds beyond family that remain far too small: the claustrophobia from which Laura (Catherine McGraffin) seeks escape by way of withdrawal into the fantastical, miniature world of her all-too-fragile glass menagerie; which Tom (Tom Stokes) expresses in frustrated outbursts and relieves via outings to the cinema and forays into his own empty glass collection; that Amanda (Vanessa Downing) bastes in dripping, pouring fat into an already sizzling fire of co-dependency and bitter resentments. Even The Gentleman Caller (Eric Beecroft) feels it, his brilliant school career cut off at the knees in the real world. And this is but one of the emotional keys to the play on which a window may be cracked open, but little of the dank, stale air inside permeates, such that we really catch the acrid scent.

If there was a detail I could admire it was the faceless portrait of Tom & Laura’s father, the telephone man “who fell in love with long distances”, as Williams so eloquently puts it. But the bigger picture disappoints. Despite McGraffin’s best efforts, Kilmurry fails to exploit the significance of Laura’s detachment from reality. We get little or nothing of the irony of Laura’s crippled status: that she, in fact, is the only character not crippled by pent-up jaundice. Her admiration for Gentleman Jim seems born of desperation, rather than her comprehensively compassionate nature. In other words, we receive her only as crippled, lonely and a sandwich short of a picnic, not as the heart and soul of the play; thus, when we hear Tom’s final words, they aren’t as wrenchingly regretful as they ought to be.

Nor is there enough made of the dissonance between Tom’s here-and-now presence in the unfolding action rubbing up against tainted recollections and soliloquies: the unwitting distortions of memory versus the uninviting coldness and hardness of actuality. We should feel uncertain about Tom; he should strike us as an unreliable witness, prone to the bribes of his own, sometimes childish, pouting perspective. Instead, Tom is the unflinching backbone, which misses the subtleties and complexities of his character entirely. Worse still, if we substitute the playwright for Tom, we miss out on a wealth of intensely introspective detail.

If anything, it’s the pathetic quality of Amanda, the faded southern belle, still clinging to past glories and the parallel with the much younger Jim who, even in his twenties, must hark back to former triumphs, that rings out most clearly.

This is a production that, like Tom, needs tricks in its pocket; things up its sleeve. It isn’t quite the opposite of stage magic. But it isn’t exactly the apotheosis, either. When you have such a fine play on which to build, you don’t have too many excuses for shoddy renovations.

The details: The Glass Menagerie plays the Ensemble Theatre until August 10. Tickets on the company website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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