Tennessee Williams comes from a cohort of playwrights whose early 20th century upbringing, while horrid by any standard, provided ample source material that would later be used to craft some of the most iconic works of American theatre. Along with Eugene O’Neil’s “Long Days Journey Into Night”, “The Glass Menagerie” is semi-autobiographical and features characters loosely (or not so loosely?) based on himself, his mother, and sibling. This window into Williams’ early life illuminates the psyche of a man who experienced profound heartache, but repurposed that heartache into dramatic works that speak to the human condition. One of those works is currently experiencing a stunning production at the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake’s renowned celebration of theatre.
. . .haunting and brilliantly acted. . .
“The Glass Menagerie” tells the story of Tom (Andre Sills), a 20-something man toiling away in a shoe factory to support his mother Amanda (Allegra Fulton), an overbearing and faded southern belle; and sister Laura (Julia Course), a mentally fail and cripplingly shy shut-in who spends the bulk of her time obsessing over her glass animal collection. In an effort to appease his mother, Tom arranges something of a blind date between Laura and Jim (Jonathan Tan), a co-worker and friend from the shoe factory. After overcoming an initial bout of nerves and shyness Laura seems to be warming to Jim, until he reveals that he’s already engaged to be married. This revelation breaks Laura’s heart and sends Amanda into a rage, which she ultimately redirects to Tom, who flees the home and, as he later reveals, never returns.
The humanity and profound sadness of this production largely stems from its intimacy; in terms of acting choices, staging, and the theatre itself. Like most productions of “Menagerie”, Shaw’s takes place in-the-round, with seats on all sides in a theatre that’s only slightly larger than blackbox (I’d estimate 200 seats or so). Being so close to the stage gives the impression that you’re sitting in the Winfield’s living room seeing firsthand the agony on Laura’s face and the fire in Amanda’s eyes. The use of darkness and sparse lighting also added to the show’s intimacy, as well as the ways in which Tom—who also acts as the story’s narrator—moves in-and-out of the apartment as he toggles between his two roles.
Each member of this small cast beautifully channels the complexity of William’s characters. Course’s Laura is fragile and childlike, filled with youthful wonder but also utterly broken. Laura is a human embodiment of the glass ornaments that she treasures so dearly; she’s beautiful yet fragile.
Allegra Fulton’s Amanda is the seminal southern belle, a character found in many many Tennessee Williams plays (similar to Balance Dubois in “A Streetcar Names Desire”). She’s manipulative and overbearing, but also charming and magnetic.
Jonathan Tan’s Jim is relentlessly positive, constantly brimming with a smile and a bursting with a kind word, even as he’s breaking Laura’s heart.
And stealing the show is Andre Sills’ Tom, whose magnetism as the narrator is mirrored in intensity as Laura’s protective older brother. Sills brings out a different dynamic in his relationship with each character in the show. With Laura he’s nurturing and patient, frustrated and fiery with Amanda, chummy with Jim. He brings immense focus likability to a complex character and is an absolute powerhouse in this production of Tennessee Williams’ most iconic play.
Ultimately, Shaw’s production of “Menagerie” stems from director Laszlo Berczes’ understanding of the fact that, while rich with emotional baggage, the story is simple. It’s about the delicate balance between reality and hope, and the acceptance that life can be both beautiful and tragically unkind.
The Shaw Festival’s production of “The Glass Menagerie” is haunting and brilliantly acted, an intimate and deeply sorrowful story about beautiful dreams and the cruelty of reality. It’s playing at the festival’s Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre until October 12. For tickets and more information, click here.