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The Glass Menagerie

Tennessee Williams
Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company
Theater Wit, Chicago

Walter Briggs (Jim) and Joanne Dubach (Laura) Credit: Emily Schwartz
Hans Fleischmann (Tom) Credit: Emily Schwartz
Maggie Cain (Amanda) and Joanne Dubach (Laura) Credit: Emily Schwartz

Finally, finally, finally, the production of The Glass Menagerie I have been wanting to see for decades: a chance to see Tennessee Williams’s first experiment with what he called a “plastic theatre” that uses technology to create theatrical magic.

The plot of this memory play is the story of Tom Wingfield’s abandonment of his family consisting of his sister Laura, mildly physically challenged but emotionally stunted as a result, his mother Amanda, desperately doing everything she can to hold her family together and take care of her children and his long-absent father.

In spite of Williams’s insistence that this play is “truth in the form of illusion”, most productions of The Glass Menagerie I’ve seen have fairly realistic reproductions of the Wingfield apartment—not so this version.

All of this Menagerie takes place in the back alley of an American tenement with a brick façade designed by Grant Sabin that reaches nearly to the back of the small auditorium and envelops most of the audience; the set is crowded with hundreds of bottles, cups, vases, broken bits of glass, even an old typewriter and a bicycle forming a nightmare vision of America, a lost place that has been abandoned in time. Bits and pieces of the set get caught up into the memory of the narrative, as when Tom gives the gentleman caller a bit of the sports section to read after peeling it off of his bare and dirty foot, neatly turning a bit of the set into a prop.

As the production goes on, the bottles all over the set light up and glow, creating a visual magic that matches the emotional warmth of the scene between Jim and Laura. (The candles Laura blows out in the original version are here replaced by the lighting of the entire set that then fades into darkness, visually strong, but perhaps not so symbolic of Laura’s disappearance into Tom’s past as the original was.)

What is key here is that Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company’s version has kept William’s original conception of projections as an integral part of the design of the show. The projections created for the production by Anna Henson work—they consist of appropriated images from American cinema of the period, photographs of women from the turn of the century that stand in for Amanda’s youth as a flirt, and Henson’s own video.

Added to this is director Hans Fleischmann’s very original conceit for this production—his Tom is not just a wanderer who follows in his father’s footsteps and goes to sea for adventure. As played by Fleischmann himself, this Tom is a homeless person living on the streets. In this version, Tom is depicted barefoot, with stringy hair and an untrimmed beard, and the actors rarely interact with Tom; the other three actors usually face the audience directly as they portray Tom’s memories of his family rather than characters in their own right.

The acting is superb; Fleischmann’s Tom is very well realised but so are the other three actors. Maggie Cain’s Amanda neatly draws a fine line between the portrayals of Amanda as a total and utter monster that, in turn, lets Tom off the hook for leaving his sister behind and the Amandas, in which the humanity of the character and her desperation are highlighted. Cain does both, in a way that sets the tone for Tom’s eventual fate as a homeless person. Neither is at fault—both are so damaged that they must tear each other apart.

Joanne Dubach’s Laura is a revelation. Usually Laura is played as a young woman who is comfortable enough with her family; her problem is that she finds it impossible to deal with the outer world. Dubach’s Laura can’t even deal with her own family, and so when Jim, her gentleman caller, brings her out of her shell and gets her talking at last and kisses her, we feel she has a chance for normality in that moment, though the discovery of the fact that he is engaged will doom her and bring the final break between Tom and Amanda in just a few minutes of stage time.

And Walter Briggs’s Jim is just what he needs to be: a big affable galoot who is just trying to get along in the world and get ahead through night classes—though something in Briggs’s performance makes it clear that Tom’s judgment of him is deadly accurate: that the high point of his life was high school and he’s as far as he’s going to go.

All in all, a great production, well worth seeing for readers who find themselves in Chicago. It has been extended several times already… and no wonder.

Reviewer: Keith Dorwick