The Glass Menagerie (1944) was the first successful play by Tennessee Williams and, although far from the vertiginous poetic heights of his masterpiece “A streetcar named Desire”, it contains much the same themes: the obsession with the loss of youth, family conflict, the desire to escape reality through a fantasy world and the inability to live in the real world.
Director and designer Tom Cairns makes a compellingly stylish job of this “memory play”. While the veneered art deco sofa anchors the story to its original 1930s setting, most of the other set elements and the costumes blur into a “timeless modern” aesthetic, functional to the representation of the cloudiness of memory. Likewise the continuously rotating cubic structure that encloses the scenes around the rowdy dinner table represents the shifting of memories.
Samantha Bond is Amanda Wingfield, the oppressive mother. Her talent is a comic one, and she’s at her most convincing when she wants to make us laugh, as well as infusing even serious scenes with a vein of comedy. Her scene with the gentleman caller on the sofa, where she feigns loquacious nonchalance, is a highlight of the show. Zara Devlin plays well the frail and sweet Laura, the crippled daughter whose favourite pastime is playing with the eponymous glass menagerie. Frank Blake is Jim O’Connor, the unaware “gentleman caller” that cannot fulfil the role of rescuer of Laura’s solitary fate because of his latent homosexuality. Marty Rea shines playing the somewhat unripe character of the unfulfilled Tom, displaying many flashes of that naturalness typical of the great actors.
This production represents what the perfect staging of a classic can (should?) look like in the twenty first century. You can skip the philological period costumes and settings, but you do it subtly, with little, almost imperceptible twists, in a way that appeals and speaks to contemporary audiences but doesn’t betray the text, nor trivialises it; it emphasises it instead.