The Glass Menagerie
By Tennessee Williams
The Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, 11 January – 9 February
Presented by special arrangement with The University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee.
From time to time, the American expat, no matter how unpatriotic his sentiments may be, develops a certain homesickness for his motherland. This regret may take on a gluttonous form, causing a longing for hamburgers, fried chicken, hot dogs or “freedom fries.” Being rather put off by the thought of an heart attack, I decided to feed my cravings instead by attending Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, directed by Jemima Levick.
Having an extra ticket, I invited along a fellow expatriate, the idea being to supersize Americanism. This was perhaps a silly idea, as both of us, though only being in Britain for a period of four or five months, have neglected to maintain our native accents. Nevertheless, the reminiscences of American life to precede and follow the production were of no little help in putting that homesickness to rest.
The Glass Menagerie (1944) was Tennessee Williams’ first major success and is reputed to be somewhat autobiographical of his own life. Tom Wingfield (nicknamed Shakespeare, and possessing the same initials as Williams) may be viewed as a young Tennessee Williams; Amanda, his rather eccentric mother; and Laura, his sickly sister. The play’s structure is unique in that it is a “memory play,” narrated by Tom and shifts between the present (1944) and the past (the 1930s).
The play contains only four active characters: Amanda, Tom, Laura, and Jim. It is the story of a Southern family (now in St Louis) struggling to survive the economic depression of the 1930s. Amanda is left by her “long distance” husband sixteen years earlier, and must raise her children Tom and Laura alone. Tom supports the family by working in a factory. He is depressed by his monotonous existence and feels trapped by Amanda. Laura is a shy cripple who lives for her collection of glass animals, a menagerie as Amanda calls it. Failing to finish business school, Amanda determines that Laura must be married off to a man who can support her. Amanda thus begins her campaign to obtain some “gentleman callers.” Jim, a great success at high school whom Laura admired greatly, comes to dinner in the form of a gentleman caller. He offers Laura love and an escape from the family’s troubles, however, he must face his own issues, thus causing conflict.
Because there are so few characters and the play is set in one room, good acting and technical effects are essential. On both counts, the production was a success. Amanda, in some ways the quintessential Bette Davis role in my view, was taken on well by Barbara Marten. She brings out the character’s stubbornness and rather cruel personality, yet somehow manages to illustrate Amanda’s better qualities, such as her firm belief in her children’s capabilities. Tom, a good role for James Stewart, was likewise performed well by Anthony Eden, who brought out his character’s modern American identity, longing for adventure. Nicola Harrison conveyed well Laura’s cute creepiness and did a good job handling Laura’s disability without going over the top which is easy to do. Jim, played by Joseph Arkley, was presented as outspoken, jolly, and old-fashioned. However, the accents of Eden and Arkley (particularly the latter) were at times a bit too English. Arkley seemed rather more a Victorian gentleman than an economically depressed American. This slight failing aside, the cast performed superbly.
The dim lighting and shabby surroundings were particularly effective in creating the essential mood of solemnity. The dim lighting also acted as a reminder to the audience that the play is the product of Tom’s memories, which cannot always be taken as gospel truth, what with his self-professed poetic licensing. The melancholy background music caused the production to adopt the comfortable air of a motion picture.
Jemima Levick’s production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie is a pleasure to behold. I recommend it fully not only to homesick expats, but normal audiences as well. For some insight into the production, the prospective theatre-goer would do well to check out a series of four interviews with Levick, the director, at the Lyceum website.