Review: THE GLASS MENAGERIE at the Theatre Centre

by Lynn on September 1, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

Red face of fury

At the Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen Street. W. Toronto, Ont.

Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Philip McKee
Set and costumes by Adriana Bogaard
Lighting by Jareth Li
Sound by Sam Sholdice
Cast: James Graham
Tracey Hoyt
Samer Salem
Hannah Spear

One wonders why you would chose to produce this classic by Tennessee Williams and ignore everything about it that makes it a beloved, moving classic, but that’s what director Philip McKee has done.

Note: The Glass Menagerie is Tennessee Williams’ play about his family. For a time he lived with his family in St. Louis, a city he loathed. He of course dreamed of being a writer. His mother was considered “a monster’ by many. He did not write her that way in the play. His fragile sister Rose is ‘re-created’ in the play in the character of Laura. Rose was overly-excitable and so Mrs. Williams took her to a doctor who recommended a lobotomy to cure her. It ‘cured’ her alright. It made her almost zombie-like. Tennessee Williams was not consulted nor was he there when the operation happened.

When the American Repertory Theatre in Boston produced a production of The Glass Menagerie staring Cherry Jones a few years ago, there was an exhibit of letters from Tennessee Williams in the lobby of the theatre. One of them was a blow up of a letter from Tennessee Williams to his mother in which he asks “…what operation?” in which he wants his mother to explain what she has decided to do to his sister. The fact that he was not there to stop it or to comfort his sister Rose haunted him his whole life. When the character of Tom says at the end of the play that he can’t forget his sister Laura and that she haunts him when he least expects it, that is Tennessee Williams talking about his sister Rose.

The Story. This is a play about memory, regret, dreaming, illusion and reality. Tom Wingfield is our narrator, a dreamer who seeks adventure and wants to be a writer. He lives with his mother Amanda Wingfield and his sister Laura in a shabby apartment in St. Louis. He works in a shoe factory so that his paycheque can help support the family. He yearns to leave to join the merchant marines to seek adventure.

Amanda remembers the time when she lived in the South and was the belle of the ball with many ‘gentlemen callers.’ But she fell in love with the man she would eventually marry, who would then eventually leave her and their two children, Tom and Laura. Laura is a shy, fragile young woman who lives in her own world: she collects and polishes miniature glass animal figurines, and she plays music on the Victrola. When she was younger she had an illness that required she wear a leg brace that made her terribly self-conscious. Now she doesn’t need the brace but it has left her with a limp. Williams says in his description of Laura that the limp can be a ‘suggestion’.

Amada is a pragmatic woman who wants to ensure that Laura can fend for herself so she enrolled Laura in a business course. That didn’t work out so other plans are thought of. And there is a Gentleman Caller who is described as “that long delayed, but always expected something that we live for.” He is a young man that both Tom and Laura knew in high school. Laura knew him better than Tom.

The Production. For some reason director Philip McKee wants to present the production as a contemporary play not one set just in the 1930s. So the telephone is a push button affair. Laura doesn’t play a Victrola but uses CDs in a CD player Ok. Whatever.

As Tom, James Graham is mournful from the beginning of the production to the end. This makes perfect sense since he is remembering his family and what he did to them, especially his sister. He seems even haunted from the first scene, which I think is compelling. Graham has nuance, shading and masses of subtlety in his performance. He’s the only member of the cast who does.

I can only assume that Philip McKee directs Tracey Hoyt to play Amanda as a hectoring harpy, who says her lines at break-neck speed, almost without variation, thus making her seem like a robot on speed. She flits from anger to something like tenderness with such quickness that you don’t believe the tenderness. In Act II when Amanda meets Jim O’Connor, the Gentleman Caller, Hoyt plays the scene as if she is now Blanche Du Bois in A Streetcar Named Desire; flirty, predatory as if she is on the make for Jim, rather than just being chatty, charming Amanda.

As Laura, Hannah Spear, tries hard to suggest Laura’s fragility. Ms Spear is a tall, slim woman whose posture is purposefully slumped. Her hands pull at her pant leg or later her dress, to appear awkward. Her head is usually down and she rarely looks anyone in the eye. Though she speaks haltingly, it is all so obvious. She plays Laura without any trace of a limp. By doing away with even a suggestion of a limp, despite several references to it, makes Laura delusional at best and her mother and brother complicit. I don’t think that’s a good thing.

The play describes The Gentleman Caller as “A nice, ordinary, young man.” As played by Samer Salem he is rough around the edges, brash, swaggering, a flirt who can match Amanda’s come-ons; and he mumbles or slurs his words—not exactly what you want to hear about a man who is supposed to be taking Public Speaking. Interestingly, I am not convinced of his glowing time in high school, but I can see how things might have gone badly for him after high school, because of the way Samer Salem plays him. And how they will continue to go badly for him. (Interesting notion, that.)

When you read the play, the fact that Tom, Laura and Amanda love each other fiercely hits you like a thunderbolt. In this heartless production I not only don’t believe they love each other, I hardly believe they know each other.

Other odd directorial decisions:

* Tom says the play is sentimental and not realistic. “In memory everything seems to happen to music. That explains the fiddle in the wings.” In this production there is no music and certainly not the fiddle. Interestingly in Act II, with a storm coming, there is reference to thunder and a sound effect of thunder to go with the reference; odd that—perhaps a glitch with the violin music? Or not.

* Laura doesn’t collect glass figurines. She seems to make them and there is no trace of fragility about it. She is firm, focused and determined when she is breaking a mirror into small squares. During those scenes in the play when Laura polishes and tends her collection, in this production she dons safety glasses, protective gloves and uses various sharp tools to cut squares of mirrored glass. It’s noisy work and she beavers away, often when the major scenes are going on elsewhere on stage, thus pulling focus from the action. What she is making with all those glass bits is spooky.

* In one scene Laura lays still on a cot on her back. Then she puts her right hand down under her pants and fondles herself. (Really!!!!???? Hmmmm? Not in my playtext she doesn’t.)

* In the text, Tom and Amanda have a terrible argument about where he goes at night and during it the table with Laura’s glass menagerie is knocked, disturbing the fragile glass, causing Laura to yell out, “My glass—menagerie”. In this production Tom deliberately picks up a glass figurine, holds it aloft and then drops it on the floor, causing Laura to say, “My glass…….” (thus making Tom seem like a mean, cold-hearted man without remorse).

* Later when Laura screams when she falls on the fire escape, Amanda rushes to her. Tom is lying on his cot on the other side of the stage; sits up with a start and then does not move to go and comfort her. If he had moved to her he would thus face Amanda that will then lead to their reconciliation. (Again, Tom painted as a cold-hearted man without care for his sister; and the director revealed as a man determined to ignore the play and the information in it—you remember the play—the reason we’re in the room, eh?)

* When it’s time to sit down for dinner Amanda, Tom and Jim, the Gentleman Caller, wait for Laura. Tom and Amanda are standing at their places. Jim sits at his. Even when he looks at the two standing, and Laura slowly lurching in, he sits. (What’s that rudeness all about?)

* When Tom brings Jim home, Jim wears pants and a red short-sleeved shirt tucked into his pants with a button or two unbuttoned at the top, revealing his white undershirt. When Tom and Jim get some air on the fire escape, Jim takes out the shirt tails from his pants and unbuttons the entire red shirt revealing the whole front of his undershirt. When they are called into dinner by Amanda, Jim tucks in his undershirt (for propriety?) but leaves the red shirt fully unbuttoned. (in the world of the play, you remember the play… Jim would never present himself so badly. Never.

* When Laura and Jim have their scene in Act II she shows him her favourite glass figurine. She tells him to put it on the table. He puts it on the floor instead, thus making it a perfect target for his clumsiness when he knocks it over. (really lazy direction, that.)

* Not content to end the production as the play does, Philip McKee adds a bit of confusing business at the end, when Laura gives Tom her spooky glass creation to wear. Ridiculous.

If a play and its vital information has to be so ignored in order to impose the director’s concept then the concept doesn’t work and should be scrapped.

Comment: How could this concept and the production have gone so terribly wrong? Director Philip McKee gives us a clue in this quote from the press release: “At its core, The Glass Menagerie presents a choice between the pursuit of the ideal self and the need to confront the very real circumstances that surround us. In our current political climate, this conflict once again feels dangerously present. It has brought the play a new, unexpected edge and we hope that the intimacy of The Theatre Centre Incubator will bring the audience right into the heart of that struggle” – Philip McKee, Director

At almost every turn director Philip McKee has ignored Tennessee Williams’ stage directions describing the tone, feel and mood of the play, along with ignoring the attitudes of his characters and what those characters say and do. Instead he imposes his rigid concept of the play thus negating everything that is glorious, moving, personal and classic about it. The result is a production that is loveless, soulless and witless.

Presented by The Howland Company and 73H Productions

Opened: Aug. 31, 2016.
Closes: Sept. 11, 2016.
Cast: 4; 2 men, 2 women.
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Tickets: 416-538-0988

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Anon September 1, 2016 at 7:58 pm

so… in your estimation there can be no innovation at all into trying to grasp the deeper meanings of a classic play? Are you against any kind of interpretive work whatsoever in the theatre? To be fair, I haven’t seen this production, and perhaps I’d agree with your negative take on it, but every single reason you give for disliking the performance smacks of rigidity, narrow-mindedness and traditionalism. Hardly the sort of thing I’d expect from a self-professed theatre critic. It’d be far more helpful to the rest of us if you’d bother to review the piece as it stands, rather than solely complaining about every minor deviation from the original stage directions… if everybody just did the exact same production, why bother going to see a live performance of it anyway?


2 Anon September 2, 2016 at 5:32 pm

Well said, Anon. Here here! Down with the crusty critic who is so afraid of experimentation and risk! This is not a review. This is a childish pining for an antiquated production in the face of something fresh.


3 Kerr W September 4, 2016 at 8:58 am

While I agree with Phil (oh, I’m sorry I digress, “Anon”) below in the sense that there is a certain hyperbolic rigidity to what the reviewer deems appropriate to be in the play, she makes a lot of really good points. The direction being lazy is the biggest one. There’s a difference between mining the play for new meaning in a different time and place and disregarding simple yet key points in the script seems amateurish. The pacing of the play was inconsistent scene to scene, it sounded like there was very little text work done with the actors (I glean this from mispronounced words to entire sections of beautiful text glossed over with such generalization that seems just sort of good enough, like the production as a whole). The glass unicorn placed on the ground was atrocious direction and I had to keep myself from audibly groaning at the lack of directorial prowess in working not only against your text but seemingly outside of it, with an arrogance that suggests abundant laziness and a lack of detail.

Mr McKee, who I saw yelling at a fellow patron during intermission for attempting to make an early exit during act one, was not the strongest choice to direct this piece. Not only not the strongest but not the right choice. Again symbolic of the production as a whole. No new illuminations on the play, the characters, or the current political times. Not because they aren’t there or meant to be had, because the direction gave us nothing of that. Kudos to the actors for working their asses off up there, you looked left out to dry. If only that ship had a better captain.