Review: THE GLASS MENAGERIE (The Shaw Festival)

by Lynn on July 29, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Written by Tennessee Williams

Directed by László Bérczes

Set by Balázs Cziegler

Costumes by Hanne Loosen

Lighting by Mikael Kangas

Cast: Julia Course

Allegra Fulton

André Sills

Jonathan Tan

A generally beautifully acted production but the director László Bérczes makes two directorial decisions that diminish the emotional punch of the play.

The Story. The Glass Menagerie is Tennessee William’s semi-autobiographical play. The play takes place in the 1930s. It’s about the Wingfield family. Amanda is the matriarch. Her husband left the family years before.  He has been described as a telephone man who fell in love with long distances.

Tom is her son who writes poetry, works at a shoe warehouse and hates it and longs to leave the family for a life of adventure as a merchant marine. Laura is Amanda’s daughter and Tom’s sister. She is emotionally fragile, terribly shy and devotes her time to a collection of small glass figurines and playing records on the Victrola. She has a slight limp from a childhood illness.

Lastly there is Jim, the Gentleman Caller. He is beautifully described in the play as ‘that long delayed but always expected something that we live for.” Jim was a friend of Tom’s from his schooldays, showed great promise that has not been realized and now works at the warehouse with Tom. Laura also knew Jim in high school years before and was smitten with him but was too shy to let him know.

The Production. At the beginning of Tennessee William’s play, Tom enters to set up the premise of the play when he says: “Yes, I have tricks in my pocket. I have things up my sleeve….”; that he is the opposite of a stage magician; that it is a memory play; that it is dimly lighted;  that it is sentimental.

Director László Bérczes does most of his directing in his native Hungary. He was invited to come to the Shaw by Artistic Director, Tim Carroll. While most of Bérczes’s direction is respectful of the play, there are a few instances that are eyebrow-knitting.

Bérczes ‘upstages’ Tennessee Williams’ beginning with his own distracting stage business. Bérczes continues the penchant of the Shaw in recent years to have an actor(s) come out before the show and chat up the audience to welcome them. Why, one wonders? Surely the play does that job.  In this case André Sills enters the theatre as the audience fills in. He is affable, smiling, charming and chats up people in the front row etc. as he walks around the space quietly addressing the audience.

He wears a toque and work jacket. He is dressed like a merchant marine and he is doing magic tricks for people sitting in the four sections of the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre. I wonder if it is André Sills doing the magic or Tom, the character in the play. When he quotes Shakespeare’s Othello and says “it could be about my sister’ I realize that it’s Tom doing the tricks because I know the play. How many others can say the same? How is the audience to know he is a character in the play and not the charming actor greeting them?  Why do the Shaw powers that be and in this case too the director, insist on bringing out the actor (s) to chat up the audience? Why do magic tricks before the show starts to inform a moment in the play that perfectly informs the play if they only trusted it. Tom is a man who is consumed with frustration and disappointment. This ‘pre-show’ business suggests otherwise and that distracts from the play.

The set by Balázs Cziegler suggests the cramped, shabby quality of the Wingfield apartment. There is a well-worn couch, a table and mismatched chairs in the dining room. I’m not sure why there are so many single stairs from one room to another. Characters seem to rise up one step and come down another a few feet away. I wonder how many rooms there are in the apartment we can’t see. So, odd steps.

There is a nice sense of gloom in Mikael Kanga’s muted lighting. Hanne Loosen’s well-worm costumes are terrific, especially for Laura. Julia Course (as Laura) is tall and slim. She wears a long, slim skirt, a buttoned crème coloured blouse and a long crème coloured sweater. Course’s posture for Laura is slumped so she looks incredibly frail and fragile, like a delicate piece of her glass that could shatter in any moment.  The whole look accentuates Laura’s fragility. Stunning.

Bérczes establishes the careful maneuvering that family must do not to bang into each other in such cramped quarters. The frustration and disappointment the characters have in their lives and with each other is nicely established. Most important is the love they all have for each other. Amanda wants the best for her children. She tries to make Laura self-sufficient by sending her to business college so she can work and support herself. When this is a failure she goes to plan B, to try and get her married. Amanda is not a monster. She has seen the good life and its possibilities and she wants that for her children. She knows Tom is frustrated but she needs him there for support and his pay cheque. Laura and Tom are devoted to each other and they cling to Amanda as one does in a raging storm for support.

The performances for the most part are wonderful and get to the heart and soul of the characters. Allegra Fulton gives a towering performance as Amanda that is both southern-belle charming and anxious. It’s a performance full of nuance, gentility, steely resolve and determination couched in velvet. There is such drive in Amanda to survive and to instill that in her children.

As Tom, Andre Sills has all that pent up emotion, frustration and sense of being trapped that is beautifully effective. The bond between Tim and Laura is tender, loving and impish as they share subtle jokes between them.

Julia Course is a wonderful actress but her performance as Laura is revelatory. She looks  frail and waif-like and almost shrinks with shyness when the Jim the Gentleman Caller comes calling. She hobbles when she walks but mainly devotes her time to her records and her glass figurines. She is the mediator in that family between her brother and her mother. She knows both of them so well.

As Jim, the Gentleman Caller, Jonathan Tan is the weak link. He has a sunny disposition and a suggestion of confidence, but not the depth needed to realize the variations, disappointments and possibilities of Jim.

As I said earlier Bérczes does reveal the play in a respectful way, but then invokes two directorial choices that get my eyebrows knitting they so disrupt the play.

In the scene between Laura and Jim she is awkward and stiff she is so shy. But eventually Jim makes her relax and engage in conversation. She sits on the floor—a huge feat for a woman who hobbles. She reminds Jim of his glory days and that she knows how wonderful he was and thinks he still is. We must see from this one scene the possibility that this odd couple are made for each other. They give each other confidence. In that one scene they fall in love with each other.

Jim dances with Laura in spite of her saying she can’t dance (that limp) and he wouldn’t be able to budge her. He does better. She blossoms in that dance. She imagines she is graceful, elegant and supremely confident. She is so suddenly confident that she gracefully raises a leg, twirls and kicks her prized glass figurine, a unicorn, off the table and doesn’t realize it. Jim tells her it’s broken and she, still in her reverie says, “It doesn’t matter.” She says it without irony or subtext. While that accident does bring Laura into the real world, she would not change into a confident woman this fast just because a guy she likes dances with her.

While the news that Jim is engaged results in Laura slinking back into her frail, withered self we had to have seen how conflicted she would be with the damaging of her favourite piece of glass. That is missing because the director has removed the heartache and lowered the stakes for Laura. That’s a cheat.

And at the end of the play, Tom describes how haunted he has been over the years by his sister, seeing her face in windows, in other strangers etc. He wants her to put him out of his guilty misery and blow out her candles she he can’t see her face in the light (he has the candelabra used for that fateful dinner with Jim). He says: :Blow out your candles, Laura” and she doesn’t as she comes into his memory, but one can’t tell if it’s deliberate. So Tom takes the candelabra and HE blows them out. Huh? That’s another cheat.This negates the whole play.

If it was that easy for Tom to erase the memory of his sister’s face, then why do we need the play? As I said, lovely performances for the most part, a straightforward rendering of the play for the most part and then the director adds two directorial touches that lower the stakes for two characters and takes the heart and soul out of the play.

Well that’s another cheat. Where is the weight of the moment? Where is the consuming guilt if he can blow them out? This diminishes the scene and leaves me feeling dissatisfied even thought I thought most of the acting was superb. The director left well enough alone for the most part but those last two scenes didn’t help make the play heartbreaking.

Comment.  While The Glass Menagerie is a classic it seems like tame programming since one can see productions of it at community, professional and summer stock theatres across the country. That said, I’m grateful for the wonderful performances of Allegra Fulton, André Sills and Julia Course.

The Shaw Festival Presents:

Began: May 22, 2019.

Closes: Oct. 12, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

www.shawfest.com

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