Jan 28, 2013

The Glass Menagerie: Great Depression, great escapism

McGill Players’ Theatre explores life and death in 1930s St. Louis

Ira Halpern

The extent to which Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie is autobiographical will always remain ambiguous. The play, however, looks undeniably inward, casting its spotlight on tensions that emerge within the four walls of a house. This memory play, told from the perspective of Tom Wingfield (nicknamed “Shakespeare”), who reminisces over his adolescence in Depression-era St. Louis, is currently being performed by McGill’s Players’ Theatre.

The absence of a father informs the relationships between Tom, his mother Amanda, and his sister Laura. It causes Amanda’s desperation to find a “gentleman caller” for her limping daughter Laura, who she fears will otherwise wind up alone as well. It also forces Tom to step into his father’s role as breadwinner for the family. Lest the audience forget the father, his portrait hanging on the wall, reminds the audience of his absence by intermittently lighting up.

With the exception of this gimmicky touch, director Rowan Spencer has chosen to play a subtle hand. Spencer noted that his initial intention for the set was to show a dilapidated living room covered in sheets, which would gradually be uncovered throughout the performance to reveal the set pieces. But in the end, he chose a more minimalistic approach: the walls of the set are fragmented, perhaps alluding to the fragile nature of memory, or the characters’ lives. Yet, the set does not draw attention to itself—it remains a backdrop. Spencer’s conservative approach to the production as a whole is commendable. He brings out the poetry of Williams’ work, rather than superimposing his own.

This intimacy is suited to a small theatre, and especially fitting a student production where all but one of its characters are young adults. Andrew Cameron plays Tom with an appropriately heavy dose of sarcasm and teen angst. Arlen Stewart plays the painfully shy Laura; her relationship with her mother and awkward chemistry with the other characters are appropriately cringe-worthy, but occasionally they weigh down the pace of the play. Jim O’Connor, the “gentleman caller” that Laura finally receives, is audacious, complete with a set of grandiose and lofty ambitions; but James Kelly’s performance incorporates enough of a human touch to prevent him from becoming a mere caricature.

Amanda is the only character who is not a young adult, but Ingrid Rudie’s performance is spot-on. It is appropriately over-the-top, with a Mississippi cadence that will ring in your ears even after the lights come on. Though, as Tom mentions, her character is certainly no “sphinx.” Amanda plays the role with nuance; though assertive, she is also insecure. Even in her cheeriest moments, we often sense that she is trying to refrain from crying.

A central tension in The Glass Menagerie is entertainment versus reality: Tom escapes from his mundane life to the adventure offered by the movies; meanwhile, Laura lives in a fantasy world with her little glass dolls. This production of Williams’ play offers escapism done well. Melodrama is a difficult feat to pull off: overdo the weepy factor, and the play is no longer believable; not enough emotion, and we are no longer invested. Like Laura’s glass dolls, when it comes to melodrama, there is a fine line between illusion and illusion shattered. The cast and crew have demonstrated excellent taste, and ensured that at least one illusion—the play itself—remains intact.

 

The Glass Menagerie runs Jan. 30-31, Feb. 1-2, at 8 p.m., Players’ Theatre (3rd floor SSMU building). Student tickets $8.

 

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  • Hannah Kirby

    The portrait of the father on the wall is actually in the script. Not a gimmicky touch.