The Glass Menagerie

There are five characters in Tennessee William’s breakthrough “memory play” The Glass Menagerie. One is notable only by his absence; the husband and father who abandoned his wife and two children some 16 years earlier, a “telephone man who fell in love with long-distance”. Another appears only in the second half, a good-natured young “Gentleman Caller” who apparently “symbolises the long-delayed something that we live for”, though not necessarily what’s expected.

Under the precise direction of Dundee Rep’s joint Artistic Director Jemima Levick, the poignant truths of this play are expertly handled by its cast.

For the most part, though, Williams’s play focuses on a family trinity which is slowly, but surely, breaking apart; our nominal “hero” Tom Wingfield, who at times acts like a stand-up comedian in front of a scruffy old microphone, and at others stands just off the set, observing what’s happening. He is, he insists, the opposite of a stage magician, “offering truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion”; and we are reminded of his role as both character and narrator constantly, not least by the repeated typewritten text projected above their heads like chapter titles in a novel.

Tom shares a cramped St Louis flat with his fragile, vulnerable sister Laura, and his overbearing mother Amanda, a former Southern Belle who is increasingly cut adrift from the world, scraping a meagre living trying to persuade women to renew their subscriptions to The HomeMaker’s Companion. He works in a shoe warehouse, earning just $65 a week; nick-named Shakespeare thanks to his aspirations as a writer, Tom yearns for adventure and escape but can’t see how — unlike Malvio the Magician, who he saw in a variety show — he can “get out of his coffin” without removing the nails.

Laura is mildly physically disabled, and to modern eyes almost certainly has some form of autism; painfully shy, she feels safe only when playing her old records and looking after her collection of small glass animals, the titular Glass Menagerie. Like any mother, Amanda is worried about her daughter’s prospects; the tragedy is that her old-school (even by 1930s-standards) attempts to ensure a good marriage are as frantic as they are pointless and doomed.

Under the precise direction of Dundee Rep’s joint Artistic Director Jemima Levick, the poignant truths of this play are expertly handled by its cast. Robert Jack as Tom and Irene Macdougall as Amanda may benefit from having the play’s most grandiose moments, but praise is especially deserved for Millie Turner as Laura, who delicately evokes our sympathies without our pity. Thomas Cotran also gives good-heartedness to what is essentially a cameo as the family’s much-anticipated Gentleman Caller, Jim O’Connor.

If there’s one slight misfire, it’s ironically with Alex Lowde’s set; though both memorable and simple, it’s undoubtedly larger than one might expect and, with its surrounding screens of multi-colour lights, somewhat fails to properly suggest the shabby back-lane apartment where the action is supposed to take place. Sometimes, you can take knowing theatricality a tad too far.

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

Multiple Venues

Nests

★★★
Dundee Rep Theatre / Macrobert Arts Centre

The Yellow on the Broom

★★★
Underbelly, Bristo Square

Tom Neenan: It's Always Infinity

★★★★
Assembly George Square Studios

Police Cops in Space

★★★★★
Gilded Balloon Rose Theatre

Rik Carranza: Still a Fan

★★★★
Gilded Balloon Rose Theatre

Marmite

★★★★

Performances

Location

The Blurb

Amanda Wingfield, a faded Southern belle, holds on tight to her two children; Tom, an aspiring poet, and Laura, his painfully shy sister. She is desperate for her wayward son Tom to have a stable career and wants a suitor for her fragile disabled daughter Laura. Abandoned by her husband, Amanda clings to memories of her idyllic youth in the South, where she was wooed by scores of rich and handsome suitors.

Tom has the soul of a poet but a job in a warehouse leaves him longing for adventure and an escape from his mothers suffocating embrace, while Laura finds solace from the angry frustrations of her mother and brother in her collection of glass animals and romantic thoughts.

Tom finds himself under increasing pressure from his mother to find someone for Laura, and eventually arranges to bring home a man to meet his sister. When the gentleman caller finally arrives, Laura and Amanda become more hopeful than they have ever been - but will it end in Laura’s romantic illusions being shattered? What follows is one of the most compelling and heartbreaking stories ever told.

Widely regarded as one of Tennessee Williams most powerful and haunting memory plays, The Glass Menagerie is a deeply personal, touching and profound tale of love and loss, illusion and escape, fragility and innocent hope.