The Glass Menagerie

Cremorne Theatre (Queensland Theatre Company)


By Tennessee Williams

Professional production

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Tolstoy’s remark could easily have been made with Tennessee Williams’ plays in mind, for even the mildest of his plays makes Anna Karenina look cheerful. And yet the misery in The Glass Menagerie is gentler than in most, and the tone is almost nostalgic, like an old man looking back on life.

Surprising, then, when we realise that this was written 15 full years before Suddenly Last Summer, another largely autobiographical play, which depicted his sister’s lobotomy.

There is very little physical violence or outright horror in The Glass Menagerie, and when it does come, against the background of this genteel Southern household, it is literally as well as metaphorically shattering, when Thomas (the narrator, who looks back on his early life and plays the son and brother Tom) suddenly loses control and inadvertently smashes some of the fragile crystal animals, the glass menagerie of the title, that his equally fragile sister Laura collects.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a production that so perfectly mirrors the meaning of a play. As it’s a play abut memory, and how people remember things differently, all events are seen as through a glass, darkly. Flimsy tulle curtains, constantly blowing in the breeze or being pushed out of the way, separate the dining room from the parlour; lights are always dim or extinguished altogether; shadows flit across the wall as characters move from the exterior to the interior; and unexpected flashes of lightning make the gloom even more sinister.

David Walters and Greg Clarke, in designing the lighting and the set, capture precisely the claustrophobic atmosphere of dreamy menace that turns to nightmare, and they not only echo the ideas of the play, but give them added resonance. Every detail is right, from the subdued blue-greys of the furnishings and Laura’s clothes to the clashing yellow of the jonquils that Mrs Wingfield, the faded Southern belle, brings to the dinner table, and the genteel poverty in which the Wingfield family live is conveyed with minimal touches, like the ancient church candlesticks that were very precious but had been twisted in a fire.

As for the cast, there just aren’t enough words in the thesaurus. How can I convey the subtle perfection of Carol Burns’ portrayal of Mrs Wingfield’s lifelong resentment of her fate and her repressed sexuality? Or the exquisite facial gestures of Helen Cassidy as her blossoming love is suddenly blighted? Both actors are in perfect control as they show their characters trying to hide their pain but unable to disguise it altogether, and as the clouds of disappointment gather we were all on the edges of our seats, hardly daring to watch the tragedy unfold.

Tennessee Williams was one of the first American writers to use the now-commonplace flashback technique on stage, and it makes great demands on the actor who must step from the present into the past. Conrad Coleby, in his first appearance for the Queensland Theatre Company, is astonishingly good in the dual roles of narrator and son. He too is repressed and frustrated, but he has a solidity that the women in his life lack, and Coleby makes Tom’s decision to walk out on them both quite believable, no matter how much responsibility and love he feels towards his sister Laura. He’s a man who doesn’t belong in this women’s world, and he knows that for his own survival he has to leave them behind.

He does his best, by bringing a workmate home to dinner, as a potential suitor for the mildly crippled Laura, but when he sees that he cannot protect her from that disappointment either, like his father before him he throws up his hands and walks away from it all.

And this leaves us with that same potential suitor Jim O’Connor, who walks innocently and light-heartedly into this trap and fails spectacularly in reading the situation, even when he comes to realise that Laura has had a crush on him since high school. He doesn’t understand how crucial this occasion is for her and, like any normal man, just walks away when it all becomes too hard. In a fine performance, actor James Stewart convinces us that he is as much a victim of Mrs Wingfield’s absurd expectations as Laura is, and what could be seen as cruelty when he reveals that he is already engaged to be married becomes understandable, in that he has also been drawn into Mrs Wingfield’s web of intrigue, and has his own integrity to uphold.

Tennessee Williams’ plays can be very disturbing to watch, especially in the later ones where he deals with shocking themes and grotesque characters think Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Streetcar. But the tensions here are more finely-honed and more subtle, because the psychological fragility of the characters is hidden behind a veil of respectability. Michael Futcher has brought together an exceptional team to present this sublimely brittle play and the result, I would suggest, is one of the best ensemble pieces we have seen from the QTC for a long time.

Definitely a must-see production.

Director Michael Futcher

Designer Greg Clarke

Lighting David Walters

Playing until 11 August 2007: Monday 6.30pm, Wednesday-Saturday 7.30pm, matinees Wednesday 1pm, Saturday 2pm

Duration :2 hours 20 minutes, one 20 minute interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Fri 13th July 2007)