John Tiffany's magical Tennessee Williams revival hits the EIF
If the deal hadn’t been already sealed, then John Tiffany’s haunting 2013 Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ 1944 classic must surely have had some bearing on him getting the gig of the decade helming ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’.
Restaged for EIF, ‘The Glass Menagerie’ is the archetypal ‘memory play’ – it’s even introduced as such by its narrator, Tom. Tiffany and his superhuman creative team locate the story – set in the St Louis apartment of Tom’s family – in a stylised dreamworld of half-recollected thought. Two rooms and a fire escape are surrounded by inky liquid that sometimes ripples like water, sometimes sparkles like the night sky (there’s exemplary lighting from Natasha Katz); Nico Muhly’s hypnotic score glistens away hauntingly; and Steven Hoggett’s movement adds a note of real magic, notably in the audacious moment where Tom ‘conjures’ his sister Laura by pulling her out of the living room sofa.
It’s beautiful, giving the sense that Tom is groping half-blind through painful, long-neglected memories. But the staging never overwhelms the humanity. Though the cast is three quarters American, Cherry Jones is the sole survivor of the New York production. A heavyweight of the American stage, she is superb as Tom and Laura’s overbearing mother Amanda. Herself half-buried in memory – of her youth as a beautiful, popular debutante – she is something of a monster, an overwhelming, self-absorbed egotist who has ruined Laura and Tom’s lives by her relentless attempts to control and judge them. And yet what Jones makes painfully clear is that Amanda – based on Williams’s own mother – clearly loves her children, and desperately wants what’s best for them, wrong though she may be.
Michael Esper is fine as a brooding, conflicted Tom, who has a streak of terrible weakness under his sardonic facade. And Seth Numrich is excellent as the boyish, charming Gentleman Caller, whose ambiguous reasons for visiting the household in the second half is the engine for much of the tragedy.
But it’s sole Brit Kate O’Flynn who steals the show as fragile, damaged Laura, a chronically shy, chronically unmarried girl who contents herself playing with her titular collection of toy animals, much to her mother’s despair. She is heartbreakingly doomed and delicate, and yet her sad, slightly absurd life is also the source of the much of the play’s dark humour.
Ultimately it’s Williams’s empathy as much as his tragedy that emerges from the exemplary production, a beautiful glimmer in the dark, a bittersweet memory of a moment of dashed hope.