As a domestic, poetic drama with a powerful emotional lyricism it is hard to beat Tennessee Williams’s first great success, The Glass Menagerie. In a small family apartment in a tenement building down an alley in St Louis, Tom Wingfield presents a memory play of his own departure and the night a Gentleman Caller visited his shy and crippled sister.
Tom, of course, represents Williams himself, and Laura the playwright’s own sister, Rose, the true love of his life. Their mother, Amanda, is one of the great roles of modern American drama, a fussing, repressive, ecstatically nostalgic Southern lady living on past dreams of gentility and romance while suffocating her own children with expectation.
Jessica Lange repeats the touching, fragile performance as Amanda she gave in New York two years ago. She is just as absurdly girlish, but I sense a new element of creeping insanity. Amanda is one of those mothers who want to reinvent their lives in their children. Tom is worn down by his job at the shoe factory; Laura has failed to complete a business course and has no professional or personal prospects.
After ceaseless badgering, Tom brings home a “Gentlemen Caller,” Jim O’Connor, from work. He turns out to be the sports hero who never lived up to his own idea of himself. Laura remembers him from high school, where she was ill with pleurisy (she called the illness “pleurosis”; he called her “Blue Roses”.) Their great scene together, played by candlelight, and containing Laura’s one and only brush with happiness, is the overwhelming climax of Rupert Goold’s fine production.
It is played with heart-breaking candour and tenderness by Mark Umbers as Jim and stunning newcomer Amanda Hale (first noted as the teenage disabled “holiness lesbian” in Catherine Treischmann’s Crooked at the Bush last year) as Laura. Adam Cork’s evocative sound score and Paul Pyant’s quite exceptional lighting – the whole play is a symphony of light, shadow, silhouette and fleeting echoes of the dance hall across the street – are discreet, perfectly modulated and beautiful.
Hale is a Laura not yet lost to the world – arch and striking in her buckled movement – yet already succumbing to the muffled years ahead. She and Ed Stoppard as Tom are also convincing siblings, both dark with slightly long faces. Stoppard gives Tom an urgency and inner fire that fully explains his bursting from the chrysalis at the end in his extraordinary speech about going further than the moon. How moving it is to remember, too, that the actor’s own father, Tom Stoppard, was the son of a shoe salesman who escaped into literature and the theatre. Tom Wingfield is sacked for writing a poem on the lid of a shoebox.
Matthew Wright’s superb design supplies a fire escape going to the roof of the theatre, right out of the apartment, and a cage-like gantry where Tom can perch and elaborate his story. We marvel again at how Williams pitches the memorial power of the play-within-a-play at exactly the right level of harsh and truthful sentimentality. In this context, Lange’s butterfly-like Amanda, fluttering her arms and crashing her right fist into her left palm when boiling to a temper, is like an exotic specimen of a vanished life, an endangered species, a brittle relic. One serious and pedantic point: I wish she’d discard the dreadful wig that shrivels under lights and hangs lank and curly at its extremities. Call for a hair stylist!