"The Glass Menagerie"
Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven
Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” is surely one of the great American plays of the 20th century. Thus a creditable production which offers an opportunity to see this modern classic is a plus, particularly for those experiencing it for the first time. Long Wharf’s current offering, whatever its shortcomings, falls into this category.
Williams’ play is sheer poetry, turning life (much of it his own life) into art. One is swept along, exalted by the dialogue, even as one is plunged into this family’s angst. Poetry, characterization and heartbreak are all rolled into one.
The playwright sets this up as a memory piece which plays out in St. Louis. Amanda Wingfield, the mother (ostensibly modeled after Williams’ own mother) sees herself as a one-time southern belle (who once had many “gentlemen callers”). A familiar theme indeed in “A Streetcar Named Desire and other Williams’ works. But in this piece Amanda is the mother of two and also an abandoned wife. Her husband, a former telephone company man “fell in love with long distance,” as she puts it. At the same time, she relentlessly pushes her two children (Tom and Laura) toward her own idea of success. But she has no insight into their characters and their needs. As to the children, Tom (a stand-in for the playwright himself) suffocates under her ministrations, while the crippled Laura (Williams’ sister) is all but paralyzed by her mother’s demands and by the world at large.
At Amanda’s insistence Tom (who works at a warehouse) invites a colleague home for dinner (so that he might be “a gentleman caller” for Laura). But Laura, terrified, retreats from the room and turns to her collection of miniature glass animals—her glass menagerie. Thus the story plays out.
In this production, under Gordon Edelstein’s direction, Judith Ivey portrays Amanda in a way that diminishes the role, fine actress though Ivey is. Traditionally, one thinks of this character as outwardly fragile and clinging, while inwardly forged in steel. In short, a steel magnolia. And the best performances over the years have mirrored that approach. But Ivey’s Amanda comes on like a steam-roller, with no subtlety—at times, even comic, which is hardly what one seeks in Tennessee Williams. Playing against that performance, Patch Darragh as Tom never comes into his own.
Laura, too, is played broadly—at least in the opening scene—barely dragging her leg across the stage, and cringing whenever her mother speaks. But Keira Keeley, as Laura, fine-tunes her performance as the story evolves. And her peak scene with Jim O’Connor as “the gentleman caller” is beautifully nuanced and appropriately heart-breaking. Josh Charles, as O’Connor, gets it just right from the moment he comes on stage, more so than any one else in the cast.
Despite such misgivings, one cannot help but succumb to the Tennessee Williams magic. The story, with a life of its own, takes over.
-- Irene Backalenick
May 23, 2009