Reality versus illusion

Tennessee William’s first great success, The Glass Menagerie is the latest offering from the Melbourne Theatre Company’s 2004 season. First published in 1945, it is a ‘memory play’, told through the eyes of Tom Wingfield (Ben Mendelsohn) as he remembers the events that led him to walk out of his home, leaving his mother Amanda (Gillian Jones) and sister Laura (Pia Miranda). Set in 1937 in St Louis, the play is in part autobiographical. Tennessee was christened Thomas, spent his teenage years in St Louis living with his mother and sister, both of whom were unstable and his father was absent much of the time. Indeed, in his production notes Williams himself states, ‘Nostalgia … is the first condition of the play’.

The Glass Menagerie presents the audience with a subtle yet powerful look at the way people can confuse, or indeed refuse to accept reality, choosing to live in a world of illusion. Although the Wingfield family are bound to each other by the weak relationships of their reality, they choose to escape into their own world of fantasy and illusion. Set against the backdrop of America during the Depression, the drama of the play is not so much in the action but in the way each of the characters elects to deal with the hardships in their lives. 

Melbourne Theatre Company’s director Kate Cherry and designer Dale Ferguson have been faithful to Williams’ ideas and have presented a most intriguing and thoughtful version of this work. While the Wingfield apartment dominates the centre stage—light carefully focused on the table that holds Laura’s collection of fragile glass animals, the photo of the father and husband who abandoned them constantly illuminated on the wall above—our attention is also drawn to the fire escape stairs outside the front door leading, it seems, to anywhere but here. It is the escape that Tom eventually takes.

Ben Mendelsohn handles the dual role of the older, narrator Tom and the younger, angry and trapped Tom, competently and perceptively. As a young man, Tom withdraws from the reality of having to work at a factory to support his mother and sister, by turning to writing poetry, ‘going to the movies’ and drinking late into the night. The older Tom, is a playwright conveying, even justifying to himself more than anyone else, the reasons why he left.

Gillian Jones, as the faded southern belle Amanda, gives a performance that accentuates the plight of this abandoned woman. Amanda is the play’s most extroverted character and Jones makes the most of the wonderful array of lines she is given, particularly when describing her days of being wooed by ‘gentlemen callers’. The scenes between Amanda and Tom in particular, illumine the flaws in her character and highlight the tension that exists between her and her adult children—namely her inability to see and accept them for who they are rather, than what she expects them to be.

As the crippled and introverted Laura, Pia Miranda shows us the strength of character that her own family were blind to. We can mistakenly assume that she is just as fragile and transparent as the glass figures she spends so much time playing with. However, she doesn’t crumble when the glass unicorn is dropped by her ‘gentleman caller’ Jim O’Connor (Tim Wright). The scene between Laura and Jim is undoubtedly one of the most captivating and riveting moments of the play. Wright’s performance is both sensitive and strong, and while there is no fairytale ending for Laura, her encounter with Jim cannot be viewed as one person taking advantage of another.

There is much to take away from this excellent production of The Glass Menagerie, which is faithful to the play and its characters, and satisfactorily draws the best from its outstanding cast.

Anna Straford is a Melbourne secondary teacher and occasional writer.

 

 

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