Back from the wilds of Siberia, this week saw my return to the theatre to catch the premier of director Mark Kilmurry’s ‘The Glass Menagerie’. Tennessee Williams’ plays take me into the heart of the south and he places his characters in a present that pines for the past and despairs for its future. There’s something dreamlike that dances about his style, the expressionistic scaffolded set, the half lit stage, the abrupt ending to scenes, things half-formed that fade away to leave fragments of memory.
‘The Glass Menagerie’ is the first of his plays and in some ways, the most gentle and sad. We are told from the play’s narrator from the onset, “..I turn back time…it is sentimental, it is not realistic.” Yet amonsgt that, we are offered glimmers of hope that must fail, relationships that can reside only in the glory of a deceptive past. This is the story of a family that begins and ends in this spot, at this time, under these conditions. A future can only be attained if you run away from the present and all you get there is a shadow of your past.
Kilmurry found and played with the humour in the play I had previously overlooked, although I think the frustration and desperation of our characters got lost amongst some of those choices. This play felt safe and I guess after the success of ‘Frankenstein’ with Kilmurry’s risk-taking and evocative direction, ‘The Glass Menagerie’ is one to keep its subscriber base happy in its path-of-least-resistance interpretation.
The first half of the play felt a little undercooked, like a slow-cooker waiting to develop flavour. The play has an ethereal voice but sometimes the voice doesn’t seem to transfer out to its audience. It felt like it was on the wrong speed and acutely aware of itself. Partly this is the rhythm of the play slightly out of whack, which could be opening night nerves and will surely be remedied as the season continues. Mostly it’s because the intentions lack a convincing energy in the first half and therefore the stakes aren’t quite high enough for its audience to connect with either. For instance, I’m not convinced that Tom is completely frustrated by the trap he finds himself in or that Amanda is outraged by Laura’s truancy from typing classes. Both Tom Stokes (Tom) and Vanessa Downing (Amanda) took a while to warm into the play but by the second half, the simmering development of the play found its notes and was much more engaging. Partly this can be attributed to the strong acting of Catherine McGraffin (Laura) and Eric Beecroft (Jim). McGraffin managed to find the fragile vulnerability of Laura without overplaying it- a very hard ask. Beecroft also gave Jim the confidence of ambition and not the smarminess that can sometimes occur in Jim’s portrayal. Both were nicely understated. Stokes and Downing did find their moments in the play- Downing’s turn as Amanda’s southern belle at the dinner was hilariously grotesque and simultaneously sad and the ending, with Stokes giving Tom’s eulogy of regret was quite moving.
The set, designed by Lucilla Smith, and Nicholas Higgins’ lights had some nice elements to it- the lit frame of the invisible father, the bricked up windows or walled-up memories and the use of the thin curtain scrim. To create the world of the play on this tiny stage was quite a feat and generally it worked well. The odd exit off-stage before coming back to the stairway was probably the most obvious example of trying too hard to differentiate space in Kilmurry's use of the design. It served little function and if anything, disjointed the action in the middle of scenes.
But overall, the play is a faithful rendition of Williams’ ‘The Glass Menagerie’. It’s the milk arrowroot amongst all the biscuits trying so hard to be stand out. ‘The Glass Menagerie’ was satisfyingly plain. There were times I wished for more flavour, that the play sat too comfortably in understating the dilemma of its situation, but I still feel like I got what I needed from Kilmurry’s interpretation and I think an audience will too.