Sunday, August 04, 2019

“The Glass Menagerie” shimmers at The Shaw

The modern era of theater was highlighted by the writings of Arthur Miller, William Inge and Tennessee Williams. 

Miller, the sophisticated Jewish easterner, who as a social philosopher, asked in his writings, “Is this the best way to live?”

Inge, reflecting on his Mid-western sensibilities and Christian moralism, plus his guilt over his homosexuality, viewed a world peopled by solitary protagonists encumbered with strained sexual relationships.

Williams, writing in a style referred to as “Poetic Realism,” was a man born of the south.  His messages and symbolism reflected his family and its influences as he wrote of those fighting to retain their dignity, find their lives unsatisfactory, often doomed to go unnoticed while being overwhelmed.  His lead characters are often crushed by the world around them, specifically the women who found themselves living in worlds which they didn’t understand and which didn’t understand them.

His “The Glass Menagerie,” now in production at The Shaw, is probably the best example of pure Williams.  It premiered in 1944 and catapulted Williams to theatrical prominence.

A memory play, a biographical treatise which centers on his mother, sister, himself and his absent father, it reveals all of the author’s digging for his devils, including alcoholism and homosexuality.  This is Williams probing for his “why,” his issues and his writing style. 

The play opens with Tom (the compelling Andre Sills) stating to the audience, “Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion."

This line, the key to understanding Williams use of symbolism throughout the script, is heightened by Sills having interacted with the audience before the start of the show, doing sleight of hand coin and scarf illusions.  A device added in this production, not prescribed in the script.

The setting is a dingy St. Louis apartment.  It’s the home of Amanda Wingfield (extremely well-portrayed by Allegra Fulton), a middle aged woman with remembrances, real and illusionary, of her days as a Southern belle.  A time when she supposedly danced at cotillions, had beautiful dresses and numerous gentlemen callers.  A time before she married a man who abandoned the family, out of frustration and personal need. 

The other occupant is Laura, Tom’s sister (sensitively portrayed by Julia Course).  She is a woman with a limp as the result of a bout with polio, who is socially challenged, is basically an agoraphobic who has made an escape world for herself populated by crystal figurines, her glass menagerie, and a set of records left by their father. 

Amanda yearns for the comforts and life she lived as a girl, worries extensively of what will happen to Laura when she is left alone, with her fears of the outside world and her reactions to the abandonment by her husband and the possibility of Tom departing and leaving Laura and her. 

Her constant nagging for Tom to bring home a gentleman caller for Laura, with the plot of getting him to marry the girl, finally is satisfied when Tom asks a fellow worker at the shoe warehouse where he is employed. 

Unknown to Tom is that Jim, the gentleman caller, (sensitively portrayed by Jonathan Tan), casually knew Laura in high school and called her "Blue Roses", when she returned to school after a bout of pleurosis.   Also unknown is Laura’s crush on Tom when the two were in school.

Amanda’s plans for Laura and Tom are dashed when, after being kind to the young woman, Tom reveals that he is engaged. 

And so the drama spirals to a sad conclusion, as Tom leaves, in an ingeniously staged exit march around the stage, to  seek a way to satisfy his yearnings and Laura blows out the candles leaving her and Amanda to live out their lives in a veil of darkness and unrequited dreams.
The characters and story mimic Williams' own life more closely than any of his other works.  It spotlights Williams (whose real name was Thomas), his mother, Amanda, and his sickly and mentally unstable older sister, Rose.

Williams learned in 1943 that, in his absence his sister had been subjected to a botched lobotomy, leaving her incapacitated (and institutionalized) for the rest of her life.
With the success of “The Glass Menagerie,” Williams gave half of the royalties to his mother, designated half of the royalties from his play “Summer and Smoke” to provide for Rose's care, arranging for her move from a state hospital to a private sanitarium. Eventually he was to leave the bulk of his estate to ensure Rose's continuing care.  Rose died in 1996.

The Shaw production, under the adept and creative direction of László Bérczes is magical.  The clarity of many of Williams’ symbolic radiate.  The theatre in the square stage is effectively used.  The characterizations are cleanly-etched and the performances are nicely textured. 

Tom’s need to escape, while feeling a need to fill in for his absent father, is obvious.  

Amanda is pathetic, not crazy, a woman caught in a time and place she does not understand.  

Laura is maimed, not crippled.  Maimed by having to live with a delusional mother and a slight impediment, made larger by her mother’s unrealistic expectations for her.  

Jim is sensitively interpreted.

Capsule judgment:  The Shaw’s “The Glass Menagerie” is a masterfully staged show of one of the finest dramas in the American theatrical lexicon.  This is an absolutely must see production!  Huzzah!