Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams

Pamela Rabe, Rose Riley, Luke Mullins as
Amanda, Laura and Tom Wingfield in
The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
All photos by Brett Boardman
The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams.  Belvoir directed by Eamon Flack.  Canberra Theatre Centre, The Playhouse, May 3-7, 2016.

Set Designer – Michael Hankin; Costume Designer – Mel Page; Lighting Designer – Damien Cooper; Composer and Sound Designer – Stefan Gregory; Video Design – Sean Bacon; Dialect Coach – Paige Walker-Carlton.

Tom Wingfield – Luke Mullins
Amanda Wingfield – Pamela Rabe
Laura Wingfield – Rose Riley
Jim O’Connor – Harry Greenwood

Reviewed by Frank McKone
May 4 (opening night)

This touring production must be among the most effective, and affecting, presentations of The Glass Menagerie.  Luke Mullins’ Tom and Rose Riley’s Laura  allow us into the delicate relationship between a sister and brother, each with their own hopes and limitations, each with their own responses to Pamela Rabe’s frantic domination of their lives as their mother, Amanda.  Even though at first I thought Rabe’s characterisation might be too ‘over-the-top’, the fact that her exaggerated behaviour is often funny just makes her more horrifying.

Pamela Rabe as Amanda Wingfield
Dressed to receive Laura's 'gentleman caller'

Pamela Rabe as Amanda Wingfield
Rose Riley as Laura

Rose Riley as Laura, Harry Greenwood as Jim O'Connor -
the 'gentleman caller'

“Blow out your candles, Laura,” says Tom, to bring to an end his staged presentation of his memories, looking back from his new-found but always fragile freedom, knowing that his sister could never escape.

Despite Tennessee Williams’ deliberate use of Brechtian ‘alienation’ effects – and Flack’s extension of these from the simple spotlighting and projected scene titles that Williams described, into modern live and recorded video – to keep our observant and rational minds in play, there were tears and silence as Laura extinguished her flames one by one, into blackout.

There are issues to think about, raised by this particular production, which are of interest intellectually – but only after allowing the experience of the play to sink in and settle in our feeling memory.

First was to see how clever Williams was in creating a character, Tom Wingfield, who appears to us as a quite tentative first-time playwright showing us himself, his sister and mother, and his work-place acquaintance Jim – played perfectly by Harry Greenwood – in a series of significant scenes in a slice of Tom’s life.  To create such a parallel to his own life, including his own struggle as a writer, takes Williams’ first major work immediately into a metacognitive level where we find ourselves thinking about his thinking about both the state of living in such a family and the business of expressing that thinking as an artist.

William Shakespeare was perhaps the only other playwright to achieve this level of complexity, so Jim O’Connor’s nickname for Tom – who was finally dismissed from working in the shoe warehouse for wasting his time writing a poem on a shoebox – was not just an ironic joke.  Tom – Tennessee – Williams really was as good as Shakespeare.

The program notes by Eamon Flack and Luke Mullins include a great deal of useful information and discussion of William’s situation in 1943.  The program is available online at .  Pamela Rabe was also interviewed by Michael Cathcart on Books and Arts, Radio National on the ABC, Thursday May 5, 2016 ( )

I had some concern about Flack’s updating of William’s projected scene titles.  I was part stage and lighting designer (and operator) for an amateur production in 1968 (Wyong Drama Group: directed by John Werleman).  We stuck strictly to the published script, putting up scene titles above the action at the beginning of scenes, whereas Flack has made live and recorded video, and even the setting up of equipment by Tom, into an element in the action.

Pamela Rabe as Amanda Wingfield, Luke Mullins as Tom
on screen and on stage

Close-ups (on the two screens, one each side of the stage) were often very effective in giving emphasis to the feelings between characters, but sometimes there was too much distraction caused by, for example, lipsynch being slightly off (between a recording and the same words being spoken on stage).  Although I understood that Tom was doing practical things in putting on his play, on some occasions his being busy setting up a camera in front of action in the house divided my attention too much.  There was also a smoke machine downstage right which sent smoke straight upwards (and related to when Tom went outside the house ‘for a smoke’) but otherwise had little effect or apparent point.

An example I found interesting was that the title Blue Roses, in my earlier production, appeared at the beginning of the ‘gentleman caller’ scene – perhaps cueing in the audience to remember the first scene where Laura had told her mother the ‘pleurosis’ ‘Blue Roses’ story.  The effect was to heighten the expectation about what might happen in that scene, where Jim dances with Laura and breaks the glass unicorn.

In Flack’s production, the scene was well underway, and the topic of Blue Roses just about to be mentioned by Laura to Jim, when the title Blue Roses appeared on the screens.  Of course that reminded the audience of the earlier scene, but it didn’t have the effect of raising expectations and tension from the beginning of the scene that Williams had wanted, I thought.

The production was especially interesting, though, for the way issues arise which, in the past, I had not thought of as so significant.  Naive as I was 48 years ago, before the gay movement was properly established, and not having at that time studied Tennessee Williams’ personal life, I had not interpreted Tom’s “I’m going to the movies” as necessarily more than (as he says to his mother) needing to escape – even if that meant only to find vicarious adventure on the silver screen.

Of course Williams could not be explicit about homosexuality in his time and place, but Luke Mullins nuanced manner in playing Tom makes possible an even more sad ending.  When Jim O’Connor reveals that he is engaged to be married to a woman, both Laura and Tom are terribly disappointed, each for the same reason.

And finally, this production made clear – though it is in the script and yet I had not found it in focus before – that the play was written in wartime.  Tennessee makes his point by having Tom ‘reverse time’ to take us back from 1943 to the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War in 1937.  And so the internal warfare in his family becomes representative of all wars – totally destructive of the value of human life.

Overall, then, Belvoir’s The Glass Menagerie is more than interesting: it’s an excellent production of a great play.

Rose Riley as Laura Wingfield
in The Glass Menagerie