Stage Door Review 2019

The Glass Menagerie

Aug 11, 2019

✭✭

by Tennessee Williams, directed by László Bérczes

Shaw Festival, Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

July 7-October 12, 2019

Amanda: “In these trying times we live in, all that we have to cling to is — each other”

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams is so frequently performed that the heart does not exactly leap for joy when a theatre company announces a new production. Nevertheless, the Shaw Festival has unaccountably never staged it before and Williams’s play is fully within the Festivals original mandate. More importantly, the production’s Hungarian creative team looks at the play with new eyes and brings out aspects of the story that other productions neglect. 

With its 265-seat Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, the Shaw Festival is the only theatre company in Ontario to have a theatre permanently configured in the round. This intimate setting alone increases both our connection to Tom Wingfield and his family and emphasizes that we are sitting in judgement on them. 

Set designer Balázs Cziegler has furnished the Wingfield’s apartment in 1930s style. Most productions are not so precise about the period and furnish the home as if the action were set somewhere near 1945, the year the play was first performed. They forget that Tom’s introduction make clear this is a memory play that Tom says is set in the 1930s, about the time of the Spanish Civil War (1934-39), and that Tom is recalling events from that past that continue to haunt him. They also forget that Tom’s concluding remarks state that “nowadays the world is lit by lightning”, meaning World War II, suggesting that the action of the play occurs before that war. With her use of cloche hats and flat-fronted dresses costume designer Hanne Loosen emphasizes that Laura and Amanda are still wearing clothing they have saved from the previous decade.

The peculiar aspect of Cziegler’s set is that he has surrounded the two rooms of the Wingfield’s apartment with a thick concrete wall as high as the back of a sofa. There are openings for exits to the outside and to other rooms, but the inside of the wall comes right up to the backs and sides of the furniture it surrounds. On the one hand, this turns the family home into a kind of bunker against reality. Both Laura and Amanda use the home as protection from the outside world – Laura from the world in general, Amanda from a place, the North, and a time, the present, where she knows she no longer fits in.

On the other hand, to portray the Wingfield home in such a physical if only metaphorical way seems to run contrary to the insubstantiality that Tom emphasizes as part of a memory play: “I give you truth in the pleasant guise of illusion” he says, “Being a memory play, it is dimly lit, it is sentimental, it is not realistic”. One could say that Cziegler’s wall is not realistic, but does give a heavy physicality to the scene that does not seem right. From Tom’s opening description, one can imagine the Wingfield home portrayed with no walls and an absolute minimum of furniture. The set certainly does not need the pointless steps going up and down between the Wingfield’s parlour and the kitchen that inhibit the flow between the two rooms.

Where director László Bérczes’s production succeeds is in really portraying the Wingfields as a family. We see Tom (André Sills) and Laura (Julia Course) sneaking secret smiles at each other and trying to stifle laughter when their mother Amanda (Allegra Fulton) tells one of her stories about the past for the thousandth time. Throughout the action Tom protects Laura and Laura protects Tom. Laura, in fact, wants to be protected by Tom as her frequent snuggling up against him would indicate. 

Yet, while Tom and Laura may make fun of their mother, Tom and his mother have serious discussions about Laura. In countless productions we hear that Laura loves to play with her glass menagerie but we never see it happen. Here, while Tom and Amanda discuss Laura, in the kitchen, we see Laura playing with her glass animals. Bérczes has Laura wheel the birds about in flight and has her make clip-clop noises to accompany her moving the horses and unicorn. We hear that Laura lives in a world of her own, but actually seeing what she does with her time is deeply disturbing. Laura may think that her limp is her greatest flaw, but Tom and Amanda know that Laura’s mental issues are more significant. 

Seeing Laura at play or seeing her snuggle up against her big brother makes us realize more clearly than in other productions that Laura has wilfully or pathologically remained a child. She has remained stuck in the period in which she was happiest. It is very important that Bérczes makes this point so clear because it allows us to see that Laura is simply a more extreme version of Amanda, who mentally is also stuck in the past. The mere fact that Amanda asks Tom to find a “gentleman caller” for Laura shows how out of touch Amanda is with the time and place she lives in.

Bérczes has assembled a superlative cast for his production. Chief among them is the outstanding portrayal of Tom by André Sills, who as both narrator of and actor in the play serves as a link between the audience and what we see. As we enter the auditorium Bérczes has Sills already in the process of entertaining the audience dressed as Tom. Sills does some magic tricks (in reference to Tom’s opening line, “Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician”) and he also delivers soliloquies from Shakespeare (in reference to Tom’s nickname at work of “Shakespeare”). 

This pleasant rapport Sills establishes with us before the show is really just an extension of the rapport that Tom as narrator establishes with us during the show. Unlike too many actors who play Tom, Sills does not imbue his narration with any sense of nostalgia. We notice that Sills’s Tom is uneasy from the very start. This is eminently appropriate because, as Bérczes sees and as no doubt Williams himself saw it, Tom is telling us how he is haunted by his past action, by committing what is effectively a crime against his own family. Amidst all of Williams’s keen observation of how families work, Sills carefully presents a portrait of a young man who is about to explode from despair. Tom’s long absences “at the movies”, his drunkenness, his calling his mother a “witch” are not funny. Sills does not play these events as comic and Bérczes does not direct them as comic. They are signs that Tom knows he will have to plunge his mother and sister not only into darkness but poverty. 

Matching Sills in complexity is the extraordinarily detailed Amanda of Allegra Fulton. Fulton gives us an Amanda who is both comic and tragic at once. Fulton makes certain we see Amanda in both lights from the start. Amanda’s tales of her pampered but outmoded way of life in the South are funny for their complete irrelevance to her present situation yet sad in how they reveal Amanda’s unhappiness with her present lot in life and her unpreparedness in dealing with it. Fulton makes Amanda’s overexcitement that Tom is bringing a man home for dinner both comic in its foolishness yet distressing in how she is setting herself up for disappointment. Fulton is especially good in depicting how Amanda nearly forgets that the point of Jim’s visit is to meet Laura. Fulton makes the way Amanda flirts with Jim almost painful to watch as the mother is carried away by a situation that recalls her past and, in effect, competes with her own daughter for the attention she has lacked ever since her husband left her.

Given two such powerful performances it is a pity that Julia Course’s Laura does not quite rise to their level. When Laura speaks to Tom or Amanda at home, Course uses such a bright, forthright tone you would never know Laura was supposed to be pathologically shy. Laura need not be shy with her family but if her shyness is pathological, its symptoms would not completely disappear. Course also occasionally forgets that Laura has a limp and when she wears heels to meet Jim, a bad design idea in itself, she does not limp at all. Only when Laura is alone playing with her animals or during the long scene with Jim, the boy she admired in high school, does Course present Laura as a troubled young woman she should be. And with Jim, Course shows well how Jim’s kindness and authentic friendliness do bring Laura out of her shell. 

Jonathan Tan plays Jim as wonderfully gentle and kind. He shows us how Jim comes to understand Laura and how he is willing to teach her how to have more self-confidence. We feel that under different circumstances, Jim and Laura could have at least become friends if only Tom had bothered to mention he had a sister earlier. 

Bérczes has a wonderful idea that no production I’ve seen before has used. When Jim finally gets Laura to dance with him, Bérczes suddenly shifts us to Laura’s point of view. He has the two waltz out of the walled in apartment and dance in perfect harmony around its perimeter. Course has Laura’s limp completely disappear and she is confident and smiling as if, indeed, having a boy who would love her were a dream that Laura secretly entertained. 

Because of this fantasy sequence, when Laura finds out that Jim is engaged, Laura is more devastated that in any previous production I’ve seen. Course has her face fall, her posture slacken and her movement become lethargic. Laura’s devastation is only a sign of worse devastation to come.

Usually, when watching The Glass Menagerie I have understood Tom’s point of view, how life with his family and with his dead-end job are suffocating him. In this production, however, Bérczes takes us closer to viewing the play as tragedy. We both understand why the characters make the decisions they do and still regret that they have done so. No previous production has brought home to me just how cruel Tom’s decision to leave his family is. When the lights fail because Tom has not paid the bill, lighting designer Mikael Kangas plunges us into complete darkness with no hint that there is light anywhere else, not even at the ballroom next door. The darkness comes as a sudden blow. It’s hard not to equate it with death. Because of this we see more clearly how The Glass Menagerie is a parable of the impossibility of escape. Tom may have left Laura and Amanda but they have not left him. Even in telling his tale to unburden himself of their influence, he only succeeds in recalling them to mind. 

Such are the virtues of this production that even if you think you know The Glass Menagerie well, you will find that Bérczes and his cast have given it a greater emotional and intellectual impact than you have ever felt before. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Julia Course as Laura and Jonathan Tan as Jim; André Sills as Tom; Allegra Fulton as Amanda; Julia Course as Laura and Jonathan Tan as Jim. © 2019 David Cooper.

For tickets, visit www.shawfest.com.