The Glass Menagerie Review 2007

Thursday, 15 February, 2007
Review by: 
Peter Brown

Written by Tennessee Williams, 'The Glass Menagerie' was first produced in 1944 and the following year won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. In writing the play, Williams drew on his own life experiences. For example, his sister was a victim of schizophrenia, and after a botched frontal lobotomy, was confined to hospital for the rest of her days. In 'The Glass Menagerie', writer becomes character in a play which seems unnervingly intimate, often making us feel that we are somehow intruding on highly private matters which, though fascinating, can't help but make one feel rather uncomfortable.

The play is narrated by Tom Wingfield who lives with his mother and sister in a humble kind of basement apartment in St Loius. Tom works in a warehouse and loathes his job. He has a literary bent, and is eventually sacked for writing a poem on the lid of a shoe box (as Williams himself was). Tom narrates the play from 'memory', admitting that some of the scenes might not be totally accurate since memory can play tricks.

Tom's mother, Amanda, is a kind of 'faded Southern belle'. With hopes as a young woman of marrying a man of substance and living in a grand house in comfort, she married a 'telephone man' who eventually 'fell in love with long distance' and deserted Amanda and their two young children. Bitter disappointment has thus marked Amanda's life, but she pushes and prods her children with a constant stream of exhortation, continually badgering them, particularly Tom.

Laura is an incredibly, if not painfully shy young woman. She quits business school because she nearly vomits with nerves when required to do a typing test. Laura's nervousness is partly due to her disability - she walks with a limp. But her mother, though able to hang labels on most of her fellow humans, will not tolerate Laura being called a 'cripple'.

Realising that Laura has little hope of acquiring a job and supporting herself, Amanda seeks a partner for her and duly asks Tom to invite a young man for dinner in the hope that someone will marry her. When the 'gentleman caller' duly arrives, Laura is stunned to realise that the visitor is Jim, a boy she fancied in high school. Once alone, Jim's charm gets to work, but he harbours a secret which takes some time before it emerges with more disappointments for Laura and Amanda.

The title of the play refers to Laura's collection of glass animals which she cares for with considerable attention, and which on at least two occasions get broken in the proceedings we witness – in both cases by men. On the first occasion it's Tom who damages several of the animals as he tries to put on his coat. On the second occasion, it's the Gentleman Caller who breaks Laura's glass unicorn - a one-of-a-kind item that symbolises Laura herself. Indeed, it's the assortment of glass animals which reflects Laura's delicacy, vulnerability and a life almost 'frozen' in glass.

The last time I saw Ed Stoppard, he was sporting tights whilst giving an excellent rendition of Hamlet. Here, he proves his worth once again by successfully tackling the challenges of a Sourthern accent, and the trials of balancing the desires of the individual with the demands of family obligations. Stoppard's Tom is a restless figure whose confinement in the family apartment is a torment, heightened as it is by continual friction between him and his mother. However, there's a darker side to Tom. When his mother repeatedly asks where he goes at night, Tom says 'to the movies'. But we and his mother know there's more to it ('no-one goes to the movies every night', his mother says) a reference to Williams's own personality.

Jessica Lange assumes command of the family as the faded belle, and though she gives a finely balanced performance – oscillating between loving mother and pushy parent - I never quite felt the totality of her own bewilderment with life, and disappointment in her doomed marriage. However, it's still a captivating performance. There's good support too from Mark Umbers as the dashing 'Gentleman caller, who one could imagine might easily charm birds from trees. But it's Amanda Hale who really excels as the highly nervous and shy, Laura. Though she has much less to say than the other characters, what she says by actions and gestures is both astonishing in its effectiveness as well as tormentingly sad. An exceptional performance from a talented young actor.

There's still considerable currency and relevance in this play, even some 60 years after it was first penned. The highly personal interactions between the members of the Wingfield family resonate with many of us, reminding us of our own families, the nagging aspirations of parents and first encounters with the opposite sex. Indeed there were nervous giggles from some of the younger female members of the audience during the courtship scene with the 'Gentleman caller', which reinforces my point. But this play has wider implications too. In our nanny state, we're continually prodded, pushed and cajoled in the direction the state wants to take us. And even 'cripples' are now being forced to seek employment or risk losing benefits. Amanda taunts Tom by saying he's 'a dreamer', but we need dreamers just as much as we need warehousemen, perhaps even more so. And it wouldn't go amiss to have a few 'dreamers' as politicians, or even parents.


What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Magical." ALASTAIR MACAULAY for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "Wholly absorbing." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "The music becomes overintrusive at times...However, Matthew Wright’s set, a tiny apartment perched inside a picture-frame festooned with roses yet topped by a fire-escape that reaches up to the flies, is well suited to the situation." ALICE JONES for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Rupert Goold's production takes time to get going, but once the caller's arrival is imminent it clicks into gear and builds slowly to its tragic climax." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, " Her {Jessica Lange} Amanda seemed underpowered." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "A great play has been magnificently revived."

External links to full reviews from popular press
The Guardian
Financial Times
Daily Telegraph
The Times

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