The Shaw Festival’s production of Tennessee Williams’ TheGlass Menagerie has many strengths but there are choices made bydirector Laszlo Berczes that do not serve the play well. The production is inthe Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre in a small playing area with spectators onall sides. There is an immediacy and intimacy that can bring the audienceinside the drama. But it works only partially.
Before the lights go down we see Andre Sills talking to audience membersand doing magic tricks. He is flamboyant and entertaining but then takes hiscap off and starts with the monologue of Tom, one of the main characters of theplay. His first words are indeed about tricks that he has up his sleeve but hetells us that he is the opposite of a magician. He is supposed to be dressed asa merchant marine which is what he becomes after abandoning his mother andsister. His tone is plangent, he expresses grief, sadness, perhaps guilt.Having him entertain the audience as a magician serves no purpose. We havestarted on the wrong foot.
We get to know him much better as theplay progresses and Andre Sills is a sympathetic Tom, a man of dreams caught inthe reality of a lousy job in a shoe factory and a miserable situation at home.
At home he has his mother Amanda, a complex character whoseinterpretation is pivotal to the play. Allegra Fulton does a fine job in therole as far as she is allowed. Amanda lives in an illusory world of the past.The world of wealth, servants, class, gentility and gentlemen callers in theSouth of her imagination. It ispathetic, almost laughable but at the same time heart wrenching to see someoneliving in a world of illusion so vividly imagined.
There is another side to Amanda. In her illusions and ambitions for her childrenand in her struggle to control things and make ends meet, she goes seriously overboardand becomes at time simply ridiculous. Perhaps even laughable. Berczes does notallow Fulton’s Amanda to become ridiculous. He keeps a tight rein on Amanda andthough we see her devotion to her children we do not see how unbearable she canbe to the extent that she drives Tom to abandon her and his beloved sister.
Laura is a sad and at times pathetic person. Julia Course’s portrayalshows us only a part of this. Her body language is superb even if her deformitywith a shorter leg is underplayed. The issue I have is with Course’s voice. Shespeaks in a ringing tone that bespeaks confidence and belies deformity,physical and psychological. She is crushed physically and psychologically andher only defence is her escape to the world of her glass figurines.
Jim, the gentleman caller, was a high school hero on whom Laura had acrush. Dare I say that Jonathan Tan despite his fine delivery of his lines,does not convince one as a former hero who has not reached his potential buthas lost none of his confidence?
The set by Balazs Cziegler is perfect for the compact playing area andthe non-realistic tenor of the play.
Tom and Laura have deep affection for each other and they know theirmother’s idiosyncrasies and idiocies well enough to have developed ways ofdealing with them. They roll their eyes and bump their shoulders when Amandagoes on one of her tirades. This is admirable sibling love but is also suggestsa system of defence. If they could defend themselves against their mother, Tommay not have to abandon them. A nice touch but it is misleading about Laura whois defenseless in the real world.
The Glass Menagerieis a powerful play but Berczes in his conservative and restrained approach hasrobbed it of some of its emotional power. Tom, Laura, Amanda and indeed Jim(despite his surface self-assurance) live on the edge of emotional collapse.There is no way out for them.
To be fair, Berczes has added a beautiful dream sequence in which Lauraand Jim dance around the stage before reality lands on Laura and crushes her. Itis a brilliant directorial stroke.
The Glass Menagerie by TennesseeWilliams continues in repertory until October 12, 2019 at the Jackie MaxwellStudio Theatre,Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.