by Lynn on August 18, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by John Tiffany
Designed by Bob Crowley
Lighting by Natasha Katz
Movement by Steven Hoggett
Sound by Paul Arditti
Music by Nico Muhly
Cast: Michael Esper
Cherry Jones
Kate O’Flynn
Seth Numrich

Revelatory. Director John Tiffany has envisioned a production of a family damaged and bewildered by life but survive as best they can. In Cherry Jones’ performance as Amanda is a woman who loves her children; is pragmatic about their futures and determined that they do the best they can. I will never think of this play in the same way after seeing this production.

The Story. We all know the story, don’t we? This is a memory play. Tom Wingfield remembers the specific details that took place in less than one week, years before. Tom was a disappointed man working in a shoe factory, hating it, yearning for adventure, and eager to be a writer-poet. His mother Amanda Wingfield and his sister Laura are really at the centre of his memory, but it is Laura that haunts his memory. Laura is painfully shy and has a slight limp caused by polio. In her high school days she wore a brace and she thought that it crashed ‘like thunder’ when she walked. She has imagined that limp and clump to such an extent that she has been emotionally and psychologically crippled by it.

Her mother felt it imperative that Laura make her own living and be independent. So she put her into a business course to learn how to type and perhaps work in an office. A failure. Laura could not cope with the pressure of a simple speed test; threw up in the class and never returned. She spent her days walking; going to the zoo and the movies. Anything not to let her mother know.

Amanda took her to church socials. Another failure. Laura didn’t talk to anyone and no one talked to her. She keeps glass figurines. Polishes them. Protects them. The most precious is a glass unicorn. She plays old records. She has no other life. Amanda feels that the last possibility for Laura is marriage. She asks Tom to bring home a ‘gentleman caller’ for dinner in the hopes that a relationship could develop. Tom brings home Jim O’Connell whom Laura knew in high school. She probably loved him then. She can’t bring herself to be at the table with him now. She almost faints. She spends the dinner laying on the couch. Jim coms out to see how she is after the dinner. Secrets and longings are revealed. Truths are told and reality is faced. We ache for a relationship to develop and think of what might have been. We sense his marriage to Betty will not be happy for him.

Years later, after Tom left the family to join the Merchant Marines Tom he is haunted by Laura. He sees her everywhere, in reflections in windows, in bars, on the street. He asks her to blow out her candles, I would assume, so he can go on with his life, unhaunted.

The Production. This is a variation on the production that opened in Boston in 2013 and then went to Broadway with Cherry Jones playing Amanda. It is in Edinburgh with Jones reprising her role but with three new actors. And no I won’t be comparing the various incarnations of the Boston, Broadway and Edinburgh productions because that’s just not fair.

This is such a collaborative effort, aside from the cast. Director has envisioned a memory play that has been realized by the spare, simple, evocative design of Bob Crowley; the moody lighting of Natasha Katz; the evocative music of Nico Muhly and the subtle sound scape of Paul Arditti.

The playing area is composed of two octagonal spaces, close together, floating in black reflective water—I call it the ‘memory goo’ because often Laura, Tom and Amanda look over the edge to see their reflection or their past or future. Several levels of fire escapes rise straight up stage left. There are no walls so the picture of the absent father does not hang where we can see it on stage. It hangs where the Wingfield family can see it, in the audience, a constant reminder of his absence. Interesting that Amanda would still hang such a photo in sight, reminding them of the man who deserted them. One illuminated glass figurine, the unicorn, Laura’s prized possession, rests on a table downstage centre. Director John Tiffany is being clear—you only need that one special figurine—the unicorn. An old couch is upstage centre. Stage right is a table and chairs. Behind that is a room divider.

When Tom speaks of being a magician there is no indication of magic—no match is lit, nothing appears from his sleeve. But magic does happen in the appearance of his mother Amanda from behind the room divider and later his sister Laura, as he pulls her out from the cushions of the couch. Memory is hazy. These two images do nicely to illuminate that.

Food is eaten in an exaggerated mimed way by Tom as he grabs across the table and hauls in imaginary food as if he’s just won a jackpot of gambling chips. While his mother Amanda watches him with concern she can’t let a chance go by in telling him to eat slower; chew more thoroughly; and allow the secretions to work on the digestion. As Amanda, Cherry Jones chides with a sense of concern and delicacy. While Amanda prides herself on her gift for conversation she never seems to know when to shut up, whether it’s telling Tom how to eat or when she is greeting the Gentleman Caller. It’s all done with grace by Jones, and we marvel at the ease in which Amanda does go on because of Jones’ wonderful, nuanced performance. But one can see how it all could grate on her son. She is in his face; she pushes him to do better; she leans in to grab him with a stare. She is emotionally large and perhaps that makes her seem physically large. Cherry Jones as Amanda is tall but not a large woman. But that huge personality fills that cramped apartment

When he loses his temper about her questions of where he goes at night and calls her terrible names, she vows to never speak to him again until he apologizes. It’s a vow she can’t keep. She flares up in hurt anger, but easily forgives. She forgives Tom in a way that suggests they are allies in an effort to save the family. She softens and forgives Laura for her deception in a protective, concerned way.

When he comes home drunk that night it’s Laura who lets him in and comforts him. He gives her a scarf he got from a magician. He wonders how you can escape from a nailed-shut coffin with just a wave of a scarf. When he is asleep, Laura waves the scarf over him—the implication is clear—in the hopes he can escape or find some kind of peace.

Michael Esper as Tom is not an overtly brooding man. While he is frustrated by his circumstances he does have an out and that is to leave St. Louis and join the Merchant Marines. I think that keeps him pretty even in his emotions. His mother is the one who presses his buttons. Esper flares; his voice and ire are strong as he expresses his anxiety of having his every movement questioned.

His relationship with Laura is always loving. He shares with her a kind of impishness as Amanda launches into another recollection of her lively youth. They share sly smiles. Tom wants to tease and Laura wants to humour her mother. When Tom and Amanda are united in good will, as they talk on the fire escape, he puts his head on her shoulder. That is a moment of such tenderness I suck air.

But it’s the first time I really dwell on Tom being selfish. He takes the money meant for the paying the utility bill to pay for his membership to the Merchant Marine’s. Now let me see if I have this right. I realize that his salary does pay, in large part, for the rent of the apartment and that Amanda supplements Tom’s funds with the meager money she makes at odd jobs. But Tom has money to go to the movies whenever life at home gets too claustrophobic and he needs some escape. He has money for cigarettes. Amanda figured out how much it costs and finds it’s not much. But when you factor in the drinks he has when he goes to a bar and the money it would take to pay for the show in a bar—surmising one would have to pay. Well it adds up, and I bet it adds up to enough money to pay his own Merchant Marine’s Membership. But he doesn’t deny himself. Still I do get a sense of Tom being conflicted between his mother and sister and his yearning for something better.

Kate O’Flynn is an intriguing Laura. The limp is slight. She walks with her right leg turned in considerably. I can imagine that young woman had polio. She talks in an almost child-like voice. I can understand that too since she never gets out of the house and deals with other people except her Mother and brother. (and perhaps Mr. Garfinkel when she’s asking to pay by credit.) I can believe that Amanda is her mother. They both have a kind of steel to them. Amanda’s is obvious. Laura’s is too but in a different way. Rather than tell her Mother she quit the business college, she walked the streets all day so as not to be at home. Both women tend toward the dramatic and I get the sense Laura picked it up from her Mother. Laura couldn’t take any kind of pressure and got sick to her stomach when she had to do a typing test, or had to sit at the table with Jim O’Connor, the Gentleman Caller. Amanda didn’t go to her induction into the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution group) because she was sick at the stomach when she was embarrassed when she found out that Laura had dropped out of the school and didn’t tell her.

As the Gentleman Caller, “that long delayed but always expected something that we live for”, Seth Numrich is gracious, courtly, impressively assured and charming. We can also see that shaft of disappointment that he is not as far along in his life as he expected. He is perceptive and can size up the reason he has been invited to dinner, but is not put out about it. He can see that Tom is headed for trouble at the warehouse. He can see how shy Laura is and tries to coax her into conversation. While he does speak kindly of his situation, that he’s engaged to Betty, we get the sense that this is not a perfect match. He has to leave to pick her up at the train station and he has to be on time. You sense Betty holds a tight leash here.

We also sense from this exquisite production, that Jim and Laura are perfect for each other. And they fall in love in that one scene they have in Act Two. Laura has always been in love with him from afar. She bore the embarrassment of coming in late to choir class because she could sit across the aisle from him in that class. He knew of her then and was curious when she missed classes, but at this dinner he really gets to know her. She represents a witness to his former glory in high school. She praises his singing. She had seen him in the Pirates of Penzance three times. She knew how gifted he was then. She knew his potential. He got her to talk to him and when she did you can see Kate O’Flynn gear herself up to ask about his singing. That starts them talking. Numrich gets a bit more shine to him when talking to Laura.

When he kisses her it’s with passion and she returns the kiss. Electrifying. We can see promise in this relationship and when it doesn’t work out, is heartbreaking. But something else is at play in their one scene too. When Jim shows Laura how to dance they are both easy and comfortable to the point that Laura leans out with her arm wide and accidentally whacks the figurine and breaks the horn off. In other productions it’s usually Jim who bangs into the table with the figurine and he is mortified. Here it’s Laura which completely changes the dynamic.

This wrenches her into reality. She controls herself at this turn of events because she doesn’t want to make Jim feel any worse than he already does. While the figurine is now ‘ordinary’ she gives it to Jim as a souvenir. We hold our breaths as he explains to Amanda why he has to leave. When Laura goes to the Victrola for some solace in her records Amanda suggests she not do it. Laura sits on the floor; looks into the dark water and flicks the broken horn into it. All this is emotionally draining because we all have so much invested in these characters.

Comment. I have never felt that Amanda was a monster as some have said she is. I see a mother desperate for her children to succeed. She is tough on Tom because he has capabilities to live in the world. She

Some lines and scenes have been cut to keep things spare. I miss the lines when Amanda calls a friend to renew her subscription to the Lady’s Home Companion and she agrees to renew. I just want to see Amanda win just once, besides having Tom say he will try and bring home a gentleman caller. She is thwarted so often in her life that one victory is for the audience as much as Amanda. A line from the first London production has been added when Tom invites Laura to come with him to the movies. She is his champion. She acts as a buffer between him and Amanda.

John Tiffany has created a revelatory production. He has dug deep into the play and illuminated the characters and their situations in a way that is humane and heartbreaking. Cherry Jones has created a performance as Amanda that just gets richer and more complex and always deeply human. The other three rise to the occasion too. Loved it.

First performance: August 5, 2016
I saw it: August 8, 2016.
Closes: August 21, 2016
Cast: 4: 2 men, 2 women
Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes.

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