Updated: Jun 28, 2022
Set in St. Louis in 1937, Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie is called a memory play, ostensibly because all its action occurs in the narrator’s memory of his past.
The protagonist narrator, Tom Wingfield, pieces together what he remembers of his mother Amanda and crippled sister Laura from his youth, when he used to toil away at a shoe warehouse to support them, all the while hating his job and feeling disillusioned with his circumstances. Forever wishing for a life of freewheeling adventure, he yearned for a sort of freedom and inspiration that society couldn’t afford the sole breadwinner of a lower-middle class American household in the 1930s. As the play’s narrator, he speaks to the audience directly and conveys an evocative account of his life and the lives that surrounded him in those years.
The current production of The Glass Menagerie at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London is innovative in that it features two Tom Wingfields.
Yes, an older Tom Wingfield to purportedly retrieve memories and narrate them (in the spirit of a memory play), and a young one to act out the part of Tom alongside Amanda and Laura. Narrator Tom opens Act I of the play by declaring to the audience that, because what’s going to be staged is entirely retrieved from memory, it may seem to lack a certain concrete realism, and it may even appear over-the-top because of the embellishments applied by the human mind as it pieces together fuzzy, forgotten details.
However, The Glass Menagerie fails to deliver any sense at all that it is a product of memory.
To the extent that memories tend to be murky about ancillary details - after all, the mind has a natural tendency to plug gaps with imagination as it tries to construct a coherent narrative from a disjointed, haphazard scatter of remembered events - the bee expected some deliberate botching of details or a surrealistic air in the set, but the unfolding of events had the precision of a scientific documentary rather than the abstractions of memory.
Narrator Tom also warns the audience at the outset that the characters may appear rather delusional.
Each character has their own reasons for being disillusioned with the real world, and go to great lengths to construct and maintain imagined ones that they can retreat into. The problem is the play fails to construct these fictitious worlds as richly and with as much visual and auditory detail as the bee would have liked. Impressionistic depictions would have evoked greater emotional connect.
Ironically, the only departure from hard concrete realism was the idea of having two Tom Wingfields on stage, especially when neither Tom even remotely resembled the other in form, mannerism or speech. The narrator’s preamble sets the audience up to expect much melodrama but the play ultimately disappoints on this front, serving as little more than an impassive play-by-play reconstruction of the events that culminates in the climax.
Amy Adams and Lizzie Annie are spectacular in The Glass Menagerie at the Duke of York's Theatre.
To the actors’ credit, Amy Adams makes for a vivacious Amanda Wingfield, and her specific manner of enunciating the phrase 'gentleman caller' in her typical sing-song voice is still etched in the bee’s mind. Amanda longs for colour in a life depressed and dulled by poverty, and finds her appeasement in her long foregone days of youthful beauty and charm that attracted dozens of suitors at one time. The more upbeat she is, the emptier her life feels to the bee, who can't help but marvel at how Amy Adams manages to marry the character's exterior veneer of sanguine cheerfulness with the expansive emptiness she must feel within.
Similarly, both Toms perform their respective parts with alacrity, while Laura is equal parts endearing and intense, just as the original work intended. The bee can relate perfectly with the temptation to build relationships with inanimate objects rather than other real people - they are far easier to talk to and much less likely to upset the extremely delicate emotional balance of a mind like Laura's. Lizzie Annis' portrayal of Laura does full justice to the character, perfecting the nuances of facial expression, gesticulation and dialogue delivery.
And yet, somehow, the play in its whole is smaller than the sum of its parts.
The Glass Menagerie itself is puzzlingly large.
The glass cabinet that houses the Menagerie occupies a large part of the stage, but until the bee was introduced to what it really was in the second half of the play (a display of Laura’s collection of little glass animal figures, and potentially a metaphorical representation of the illusory worlds that exist amidst the real one that surrounds the Wingfield family), it felt like an obstruction of the view - like a pillar or railing that gets in your field of vision and that causes you to crane your neck to look beyond it.
While Amanda tides through the trials and tribulations of middle-aged female adulthood using her memories of past glory, Laura finds her escape in her glass figurines and Tom in movies, poetry and alcohol. But each imaginative world exists in its own place, never challenged, never taken apart, never made to collide with reality or another’s fantasy and left to thrive as is. The treatment is a little too gentle, in the bee's humble opinion, and therefore, the performance is not particularly stirring or evocative.
Watched 18 June 2022 at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London.