Tennesee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, set in thirties St Louis, recreates a short but crucial period in the life of the impoverished Wingfield family. Tom, who has artistic ambitions, works in a warehouse, and hates it. His sister Laura is physically disabled and emotionally fragile, devoting herself to her collection of glass animals, the ‘menagerie’ of the title.
Meanwhile their mother Amanda constantly harks back to her own youth, a better world of ‘gentlemen callers’ and endless possibilities that she believes now stretches before her own daughter, despite all the evidence to the contrary. When Tom does persuade fellow warehouse worker and high-school hero Jim to call on his sister, it turns out that he is an old crush of Laura’s, whom he had nicknamed ‘blue roses’, mishearing the pleurosis she had suffered from.
He briefly enchants her, before revealing he is going to be married and leaving, soon to be followed (forever) by Tom. Emotion and atmosphere are the keynotes rather than action. Tom acts as narrator for the events in his ‘memory play’, which he admits is ‘dimly lighted, sentimental, not realistic’; this is not what happened but what he remembers.
The excellent design team rise to the challenge, providing a wonderfully evocative studio setting. A special mention must go to Elizabeth Wright’s captivating design of ‘blue roses’ wallpaper, with the flowers seemingly escaping the wall across the floor and out into the audience, and to Richard Atkinson’s evocative musical punctuation.
Maggie Tagney as Amanda dominates the action, swinging from cottonwool reminiscence to self-interested fury in an instant. Her evocative descriptions of her own past as a Southern belle, up until the point she made the wrong choice of beau in her children’s (deserting) father, give a poignant glimpse of the disappointments producing the manipulative and terrifying figure she has become.
Vanessa Johnson as Laura gives us a truly pathetic victim, forever about to step across a line into hostile territory, inside and outside the family home. James Hogg is also completely convincing as the well-meaning and self-satisfied Jim, engaged but unable to resist snatching a disastrous kiss with a Laura he has half-fallen for.
Against such delicate emotional dynamics, Adam O’Brien’s Tom is often in the background of his own story; the sensitive artist only comes out when he is acting as narrator.
Theatre By The Lake's production of A Glass Menagerie - Williams' classic - is imaginatively and sensitively handled by director Ian Forrest, who brings out its toughness as well as its tenderness, and as a result is well worth seeing.