Strong performances are stifled by ill-fitting set design and stagnant direction in this production of Tennessee Williams' memory play
The Glass Menagerie – the memory play from 1944 which proved a career-propelling launching pad for Tennessee Williams – is the most tender work in his oeuvre. The poignancy comes from the autobiographical element of the text. Tom, the closeted homosexual who masquerades his late-night desires as “going to the movies”; Laura, the physically crippled and emotionally vulnerable elder sister; and Amanda, the faded Southern belle mother who yearns for structure in her middle-age familial life but also the glory days of her amorous youth – all threads of a tapestry akin to Williams’ early life.
This production – which had its original season at Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre in 2014 – is both amorphous and muddled, with many of the text’s intricacies mislaid. Under the direction of Eamon Flack, the interconnectivity of our three leads Tom (Luke Mullins), Laura (Rose Riley) and Amanda (Pamela Rabe) is stifled in the ill-fitted 1930s St Louis apartment (set design by Michael Hankin) as emotional interactions are guarded by physical walls and pieces of dialogue are lost through the rafters.
Two projection screens flank the set providing film sequences to accompany the unseen narrative and scene titles. The novelty wears through fast, and over the course of the play becomes an eyesore and annoyance on the already cramped Merlyn stage, diverting attention and disrupting the fluency of the character’s performances.
It isn’t until the visit of Laura’s gentleman caller Jim (Harry Greenwood), a co-worker of Tom’s, that the play finally captures the audience. As Amanda prepares a sumptuous feast in a gown of her youth we finally move from first gear. Laura’s horror of the epiphany that Jim was the subject of her high school infatuation allows Riley to breathe naturalistic life into her character; while Greenwood’s unassuming portrayal of Jim harnesses his naive nature in a valiant and gratifying performance. As the two play with Laura’s menagerie of glass animals, talk intimately and eventually share a kiss in the lounge (overlooked by a portrait of the family’s abandoned father), there swells a genuine sense of movement in the room. Of course, however, the nature of the text deems this happiness short-lived, and the plays over-arching despondence takes hold.
By definition a ‘memory play’ allows both subtle textual diversions and directorial creativity. When well-crafted, new productions of The Glass Menagerie can be fresh and intoxicating; however, this hampered rehash feels stagnant and tiresome.
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