This new production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie directed by Polly Teale is a bold one. It blends realism and symbolism in much the same proportions as does the script, Williams’ most autobiographical one. Designer Naomi Dawson gives us a multi-level set, offering the crowded interior of the Wildings’ tenement apartment in St Louis, the fire-escape outside and a taste of a wider world symbolised by a skyscape behind. Onto this images from films of the 1930s are projected from time to time.
Time is the fragile thread from which the story depends. As Tom (Patrick Kennedy) wrestles himself out of a dead-end job via the merchant navy into the writing career which is his consuming ambition, so past, present and future shift around him and are illuminated in turn. Flames burn bright, but also consume; like moths to a candle, so Tom’s sister and mother flutter towards the light which kills.
The show part is usually thought of as that of the mother, a faded, self-deceiving Southern belle whose bright past has, just like that in the book and the movie, gone with the wind. The wind in this case being her long-departed husband. Certainly Imogen Stubbs makes Amanda a marvellous blend of selfish devotion and obtuse practicality but it is the performance of Emma Lowndes as Laura which dominates.
Laura’s physical frailty is matched by her mental and emotional vulnerability. Pale-faced and red-haired, Lowndes gives her an aura of sharp uncertainty which presages danger. Her exchange in the second act with her brother’s colleague and her former class-mate is superbly timed to suggest the razor’s edge of sanity across which she limps. Kyle Soller also makes much of this crucial scene and the one which precedes it; O’Connor is certainly brash but also inherently decent. He plays along with Amanda’s posturing and draws back in time from letting the relationship with Laura become too intense.
Kennedy’s Tom is the watcher on the shore for all this, rousing only when his beloved books and manuscripts are threatened. It’s a deliberately low-keyed performance, a fine interpretation of a young man who knows that he has to disengage himself sooner rather than later from his dependents but is always fully aware that it is they who will have to meet the cost. This collaboration between the Salisbury Playhouse and Shared Experience offers us drama as catharsis. It’s at moments a painful experience but always an intensely rewarding one.