Last week saw Mermaids’ latest production come to the Byre Theatre — this time Tennessee Williams’ famous play The Glass Menagerie, directed by Manaal Mahjoub.
Considered to have strong autobiographical elements, the play centres around the struggling Wingfield family in 1930s St Louis. There is the stern but anxious matriarch Amanda, her son Tom who feels trapped by his family, and her intensely shy daughter Laura. The play revolves around Amanda’s quest to find her daughter a suitor while Laura would much rather sit with her collection of glass animals, her menagerie. In the latter half of the play, the fabled “gentleman caller” finally arrives in the form of Jim O’Connor. In typical Williams fashion, the play is a heart-breaking insight into a harsh reality and those who refuse to face up to it.
The Glass Menagerie is a memory play told from the perspective of Tom, and as such the play relies on him to bring us into the story. The production begins with Tom standing in the spotlight, with nowhere to hide as he addresses the audience. However, there was nothing to worry about here as Morgan Corby’s Tom captivated me from the second he walked on stage. It was a performance that invited me into Tom’s story, full of the little smiles and smirks that gave the character warmth. Yet at the same time as pulling me closer, Mr Corby had me deeply unsettled as he conveyed just how haunted Tom was. The actor had perfected a wild-eyed stare that seemed to look straight through the audience as he dredged up painful memories. I particularly appreciated how Mr Corby had evidently put a great deal of thought into how Tom moved. He walked with a shuffle that looked as if in happier times it had been a swagger, telling us as much about Tom as any line of dialogue.
As Tom’s opening monologue ends the curtain goes up and the Wingfield apartment appears behind it, introducing us to the other main cast members. Molly Williams initially felt a little stiff as Amanda, but as the play unfolded, I saw how Ms Williams was able to skilfully choose her moments to let us see through the facade. Coldness towards her children gradually gives way to moments of tenderness or hopeless nostalgia. The changes would be small – the flicker of a smile or a softening of the voice – but rewarding. By the end I was completely won over. In the second half, Ms Williams reached new heights as she portrayed Amanda desperately trying to relive her youth as a Southern belle. Her nervous rushing around and fawning over Jim garnered the biggest laughs of the night by far.
Eleanor Burke as Laura was similarly at her best in the second half, after being kept largely in the background in earlier scenes. It must be a tricky thing to play a shy character with confidence, but Ms Burke had no trouble. Burke never rushed her movements or her dialogue, forcing the audience to sit in those awkward moments when Laura is frozen in fear. It is her heartbreak at the end of the play that provides the biggest emotional punch of the production. Burke does not overdo it with weeping and wailing, in fact the way her voice wavers as she tries to hide her sobs is even more painful. Her chemistry with Xavier Atkins’ Jim was another highlight, as the two seemed to communicate so much without words. In general Mr Atkins was effortlessly charming in the way Jim needed to be to contrast with the anxious and downtrodden Wingfields. He managed to capture the ideal American bachelor, before letting his own flaws and insecurities slip through.
As far as the production design goes, the set was well put together but there was nothing remarkable until after the intermission. Then, when the curtains went up once more, dozens of small paper animals were hanging by threads above the set. Just as delicate and beautiful as the glass they were standing in for, the paper animals threw shadows onto the set behind them and heightened the melancholy for the second half. There, just above their heads, was a reminder of the dream world the characters refused to leave. The costumes in the second half also deserve a mention, as Laura was forced into a garish pink dress that worked as both a visual gag and an effective insight into the mother/daughter relationship. Soon after Amanda herself emerges in a formidable scarlet dress, perfectly matching Laura’s red hair and making Amanda seem all the more like a force of nature.
The Glass Menagerie has the potential to be an unforgivingly depressing play. The characters are miserable at its start and miserable at its end. I appreciated the lighter touch in Ms Mahjoub’s production and its ability to avoid descending into melodrama. There were flashes of genuine humour and warmth, as there are in even the toughest of situations. There was a restraint to the performances that made those moments when they did break down feel real. Williams’ often very poetic dialogue felt natural from the actors’ mouths and ultimately I was transported into the characters’ lives for those ninety minutes. That, surely, is a mark of a good theatre, and it is why I’ll be looking out for these names in productions to come.