Tennessee Williams described The Glass Menagerie as his first, and probably only, ‘quiet play’. It is without the hard edges and lacerating animalism of Williams’ other great plays, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Menagerie is not a play energised by human passions, but instead by nostalgia, sentimentality and the easy capriciousness of memory. Tom Wingfield, the play’s narrator, introduces it as a ‘memory play’, a non-naturalistic evocation of a long-ago chain of half-remembered events; ‘fact’, as Tom puts it, ‘in the guise of illusion’.
Director Adam Cook and designers Victoria Lamb and Mark Pennington have taken Tom’s opening monologue as an invitation to eschew a realistic aesthetic and to fashion in its place a setting that is not quite dreamlike but shares the collaged ambiguities of dreams. At the commencement of the action of the play, Tom, in the manner of a grand illusionist, summons various sections of the Wingfield family’s St. Louis apartment to appear, either flown in or propelled upwards through trapdoors. The glass menagerie itself – Laura Wingfield’s luminous, anthropomorphised hideaway – appears downstage left in a pool of light, its place as the play’s principal symbol beyond doubt from the get go. It’s tempting to think all this makes too much of Tom’s explanation of what the audience is about to see, that Cook and Lamb have insufficient faith in us to make sense of his world, but the effect is so enchanting that it makes the decision feel like a correct, even necessary, one. (The only misstep is the later appearance of an illuminated sign for the Paradise nightclub which is needlessly big and seems showy rather than evocative).
Tom is played by Anthony Gooley whose charming, if occasionally fussy, performance is a joy. Many of the play’s best lines, and much of its poetry, are his, and it is a tribute to his intelligence as an actor that he almost always allows the words themselves to breathe. It is difficult, in fact, to find fault in any of the performances; Deidre Rubenstein is marvellously imperious as Amanda Wingfield (a part which may be seen as a prototype of Williams’ other unforgettably wretched Southern belle, Blanche Dubois); Kate Cheel, not long out of drama school, is an exquisite Laura, giving a clear, affecting performance devoid of cliché; Nic English, the play’s near-mythological ‘gentleman caller’, is funny and charismatic, able as well to modulate his outward gloss when it is called for. All four actors accomplish a brilliant balancing act, allowing just enough of their own light to illuminate Williams’ words without sacrificing their individuality as performers; these are among the best performances I have seen in a State Theatre production for a very long time.
If The Glass Menagerie’s fine performances and elegant design combine to cast a powerful theatrical spell – which I think they do – then it is broken only by Stuart Day’s chintzy score. I could have done with more period music (lovely 1930s tenement jazz) and less of Day’s attempts to evoke the titular menagerie through an unsuccessful synthesised approximation of a glass harp. Hideous, distracting stuff, and entirely at odds with Tom’s musings at the top of the play about the way in which memories always seem to be set to music (of, we imagine, a romantic and sentimental kind, rather than a cloying and heavy-handedly emblematic one).
Adam Cook’s record-breaking tenure as State Theatre Company’s artistic director comes to an end with The Glass Menagerie. He has never much impressed me as a director – his well-known fondness for the flamboyant having led, I think, to too many insubstantial (and in some cases disastrously misjudged) productions – but I am pleased that his final show is a good one, perhaps even the best he has directed during his seven years at State Theatre Company’s helm. Cook tends to give his audiences surfaces, good-looking surfaces perhaps, but not much depth all the same; where The Glass Menagerie succeeds is in revealing more than just its pretty exterior. Cook, and his first-rate cast, are equal in the end to Williams’ great play, unafraid and more than capable of fleshing out its just-buried poetry with all the wit and grit that is required.
(Only one question remains: why no one is seen to smoke in this production. Surely an exemption from the anti-smoking laws would have been expedient for a play set in 1930s America in which at least one character is evidently a heavy smoker).