Last night was a chance to familiarise myself with another of Tennessee Williams’s signature matriarchs, one that I had not previously seen before. Having been stunned by Kim Cattrall (Alexandra Del Lago/Princess Kosmonopolis – Sweet Bird of Youth), captivated by Gillian Anderson and wowed by Maxine Peake (both as Blanche Du Bois in A Streetcar Named Desire), I decided to check out Cherry Jones‘s Amanda Wingfield in this fraught family drama. She was astounding as the faded, deluded mother attempting to reconcile her former glory with her troubled present. However, whilst Jones was excellent, this really was an ensemble piece in which all of the characters shone when it was their turn in the spotlight. The West End transfer of the American Repertory Theatre production was slick, fast-paced and highlighted the turbulence of the time. It interrogated how drastic social change can lead to devastating consequences.
Michael Esper was endearing from the start as he broke the fourth wall and invited the audience to travel back in time with him as he revisited a pivotal decision in his life. The cast members were assembled imaginatively (I won’t spoil how Laura – Kate O’Flynn – made her entrance) and the close psychological examination of each character’s foibles was gripping to watch. Laura’s shyness, and her mother’s desire for a ‘gentleman caller’ to take care of her daughter, was the catalyst for Tom to invite his work colleague for dinner. This dinner party, the dramatic climax of the play, was to be Amanda’s chance to provide her daughter with some means of livelihood in order for her to break free from her solitary existence.
Each character was delicately revealed by Williams’s masterful dialogue and use of symbolism. Laura’s fascination with her unicorn, the centrepiece of her glass menagerie, captured her introverted spirit and her innate insecurities and vulnerabilities. This was expertly polarised by Jones’s brash and bold Amanda whose twirling and posturing in her white gown heightened the deep sense of pathos felt for the jaded Southern belle. The metal fire escape that stretched to the sky signalled a way out of the stifling, claustrophobic flat for the disenfranchised Tom. His smoking breaks on the terrace were a perfect opportunity for him to reflect and conceptualise the next steps in his life. Esper masterfully conveyed the agonising decision of leaving his ‘crippled’ sister in order to pursue a life free from his overbearing and oppressive mother.
This production of The Glass Menagerie really did depict the raw spirit and emotion of the play. The simple staging allowed the power of Williams’s text to be the star (I felt the Royal Exchange’s recent A Streetcar Named Desire was too busy and certain nuances were lost). It was an intense glimpse at the complexities of family life; Tom’s dilemma showed the difficulties of how to thrive as an individual in the fast-changing world of Williams’s ‘New America’.