REVIEW: The Glass Menagerie (Duke of York’s Theatre) ★★★★

“When you look at a piece of delicately spun glass you think of two things: how beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken.”

The Glass Menagerie is the first major work of Tennessee Williams’s golden period in the 1940s and 50s that included A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Since 2013 John Tiffany’s American Repertory Theater production has charmed audiences from Broadway to Edinburgh with its spellbinding evocation of the play’s dusky sadness and deft handling of its tricky mixture of realism and symbolism. Not to mention nuanced and achingly sympathetic performances.

Cherry Jones occupies a zingy role for her West End debut as Williams’s redoubtable matriarch Amanda Wingfield. It’s almost operatic how Jones runs the music of the Southern dialect from sultry drawl to pealing high notes, sea-sawing from hurt to defiant.

A faded southern belle who shares a dingy St Louis flat with her adult children Tom and Laura, Amanda is thrilled when Tom announces he’s invited a colleague to dinner. They immediately start planning how they can romantically set up the “gentleman caller” with Laura, a chronically shy girl with a limp caused by the after-effects of polio.

Kate O’Flynn brings a tender grace to the frail daughter who has inherited her mother’s nervous energy but not her force of personality. Laura is insecure and afraid to find out who she is, neurotically fixating on her ‘disability’ and her collection of tiny glass animals (shown onstage by a single unicorn figurine).

Cherry Jones brings a sympathetic gusto to the job of haranguing Amanda’s son Tom, who is a poet with a job in a shoe warehouse. Michael Esper’s measured portrayal brings out Tom’s twitchy mixture of frustration, defiance and supplication. Sardonically but affectionately called Shakespeare by his colleagues, he’s more shake than spear, obsessively going to late night adventure movies and struggling to transcend the $65-a-month grind and the emotional demands of his mother.

When Laura asks, “What shall I wish for, Mother?” her mother’s voice trembles and her eyes fill with tears. “Happiness! Good fortune!” she cries. We witness the burden of her displacement of her hopes onto her children. Amanda limps on with her schemes, and Tom with his poetical dreams. Laura burrows inwards. In an inspired act of stagecraft Laura emerges onto the stage, from the dark recesses of Tom’s memory, through the sofa.

The Glass Menagerie is self-consciously introduced as “memory play”, evoking life in the Deep South in the 1930s as it’s being remembered (or misremembered) by Tom, the play’s unreliable narrator. He warns that “Memory takes a lot of poetic licence.” This is a key difficulty of realising the play and it takes delicate handling to square the realistic action and the anti-realistic framing of the storytelling.

Bob Crowley’s stage set places the key points of action on three hexagonal stages surrounded by dark water that suggests infinity, adrift in space and time and memory, with a metallic fire escape spiralling off to heaven. Natasha Katz’s lighting design at times illuminates the figures on stage surrounded by darkness, which Williams’s stage directions unironically associate with the presentation of the saints in El Greco’s paintings. It subtly ennobles these poor figures as they move through the stations of their fading dreams.

The production conveys the ambiguities of Williams’s complex memory play while making us feel keenly for the characters. It’s always a bit of stretch to say that a play in one room might contain all of America, but it gives you an idea of Williams’s ambition from the outset of his writing career. It’s an ambition that the production impressively steps up to.

The scene in which Laura and her gentleman caller Jim O’Connor (Brian J Smith) is beautifully performed, with dignity and nuance. In a poetic encounter, they share the memory that they had met: she had pleurosis; he called her “Blue Roses”. They kiss, and you thrill that they might yet experience happiness, but Jim backs away, claiming that he is already spoken for. When Laura’s cherished glass unicorn figurine’s horn breaks off, she downplays it, which surprises us. We feel she might be able to overcome her own self-imposed symbolism, but sense it might be at the cost of losing what makes her unique.

Reviewed by AJ Dehany
Photo: Johan Persson

THE GLASS MENAGERIE plays at the Duke Of York’s Theatre until 29 April 2017. Buy tickets