The Glass Menagerie

'The Glass Menagerie' presented by TheatreCorp and the Town Hall Theatre, Galway.

'The Glass Menagerie' presented by TheatreCorp and the Town Hall Theatre, Galway.

Poverty is a well-documented progenitor of fear, desperate dealings, and oppression. The emphasis on this aspect of The Glass Menagerie is one the most apt features of TheatreCorp’s competent production of Tennessee Williams’ drama of an impoverished family suffering in the “dissolving economy” of 1937 America. It is as if director Max Hafler, by focussing on poverty, develops a formidable character that inveigles itself into every facet of the play, almost out-doing the infamously fraught and overbearing mother who otherwise dominates.

Williams’ play is framed with explicit descriptions of memory and the processes by which it may work. Tom, the very ‘conscious’ narrator, is the sole breadwinner of the impecunious Wingfield family, and he tells the audience that what they are to see are his memories. He explains that these will seem nonrealistic, exaggerated and often untrue. It is a device that not only explores the tenuous and unreliable nature of memory but also encourages the audience to see the work as autobiographical: like Tom, Williams struggled to deal with his own sister’s depression, his parents’ manner of dealing with it, and the ensuing tragedy. Tom’s sister Laura’s physical disability, her “little defect” causes her to withdraw from the world, into a reality dominated by her menagerie of fragile glass animals. Their mother, Amanda, deserted years previously by their father, is desperate to rescue the family’s fortune by marrying off the fragile Laura to the nearest capable man. She is Jane Austen’s Mrs. Bennett of Great Depression America. To her relief, Tom finds a ‘gentleman caller’ who might save their bacon.

Hafler has here chosen a text that in every aspect, including its stage directions, encourages a liberal, imaginative and creative approach. Williams, in his first production of the play, proposed projecting images on screens during the dialogue to underpin both the emotions and also the themes, and he specified music that he felt underscored the subtext. He explains that “being a ‘memory play,’ The Glass Menagerie can be presented with unusual freedom of convention...” It was a novel approach, expressionistic in its ideals, one that he termed ‘plastic theatre’ - where he suggested that all possible resources and theatrical devices should be used. In this production, Hafler creates interesting moments of stylisation, particularly through his clever choreography of the dining scenes and his invention of the (rather distracting) ghostly ‘gentleman caller’ at the opening of the play, and yet this start is not pursued and he places the rest of the work fairly conservatively within the parameters of realism: too safe perhaps, but at least accessible.

Designer Mary Doyle’s set, dominated by the smiling photograph of the family’s neglectful father, is a structure of bare steel joists, reminiscent of skyscraper construction, and it houses the family’s run-down apartment. It is an appropriate metaphor for the fragility of this family in the increasingly alienating, oppressive and dehumanising world or ‘social background’ that Tom Wingfield describes and yearns to escape.

The cast demonstrates fine ensemble work; they tread the fine line between the script’s comic lines and the darker strains of failure and loss beneath. Maria McDermottroe as Amanda Winfield may not be the willowy Southern Belle of other productions but she delivers an assertive performance dealing out her character’s bullying of her family with bitterly comic desperation. Sean T. Ó Meallaigh is a suavely bolshie son suitably dwarfed by the context, his mother, and also the outsize greatcoat prescribed by costume designer Charmian Goodall.

It is, however, in the taut two-hander of the second act between the ‘gentleman caller’ (Marcus Lamb) and frail Laura Wingfield (Ionia Ní Chróinín) that this production really settles down. Under lighting designer Mike Byrne’s evocative candlelight, this poetically crafted scene is a tense and captivating show-down between the two prospective lovers. Fragments of damaged psyche emerge, are gently played with, discussed and dismissed with disarming charm. It is a twenty-minute scene of finely-wrought suspense well worth waiting for.

TheatreCorp’s production balances humour and tragedy to create an entertaining view of a family’s aspiration for a fuller life in this repressive and unfriendly world. The group correctly highlight Williams' critical view of the ‘American Dream’ and it seems to have particular relevance today, when the harsher realities of such a dream have been so starkly exposed.

Matthew Harrison

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams

15-19 February, 2011; and on tour.

Produced by TheatreCorp and the Town Hall Theatre
In Town Hall Theatre

Director Max Hafler

Set Design: Mary Doyle

Lighting Design: Mike Byrne

Costume Design: Charmian Goodall

With: Maria McDermottroe, Sean T. Ó Meallaigh, Ionia Ní Chróinín, Marcus Lamb

Also touring to: Belltable, Limerick from 22-24 February; Watergate Theatre, Kilkenny from 25-26 February; Civic Theatre, Tallaght from 1-5 March; Linenhall Arts Centre, Castlebar on 8 March, 2011; Hawkswell, Sligo from 9-10 March; Ramor Theatre, Cavan from 11-12 March, 2011.