Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie has evolved into an American classic since its debut on Broadway five decades ago. In addition to stage productions and film and television versions, the play has found its way into high school and college literature anthologies as a progenitor of contemporary American drama, with narrator Tom Wingfield as the prototypical disenchanted modern hero.
Although the play has been subjected to countless renditions over the years, time and familiarity have not lessened the effects of its shimmering language, fragile ambiance, and painfully vulnerable characters. Much of the script's luminous poetry shines through in the current revival at New Theatre. However, the Coral Gables-based company's psychologically uncomplicated interpretation fails to project sufficient fragility or pain. Under the straightforward direction of the company's executive artistic director, Rafael de Acha, the cast delivers competent performances, ably portraying a household caught in a predictable web of anger and frustration. But they fail to bring to life the emotionally wounded family members who clutch at each other with the despair inherent in Williams's script.
Although the playwright used the material of his life to inform all of his art, Menagerie, his first major success in the theater, remains his most blatantly autobiographical work. In it he pays tribute to his troubled sister, Rose A through the character of the withdrawn, sensitive Laura A and to his overbearing mother, Edwina A the model for strong-willed, manipulative Amanda. In this "memory play," as Tom calls it ("Thomas" was Williams's given name), a collage of family scenes unfolds in a cramped apartment in St. Louis in the 1930s. Tom knits these scenes together through a series of reflective monologues, spoken as an older man looking back on a volatile time in his family's history. A poet with a rich inner life that's stifled by working in a shoe factory, Tom yearns to travel the world and discover himself as an artist and a man. Yet he's held back by the forces of devotion and guilt. He loves his sister, a debilitatingly shy young woman whose slight limp is both the cause of and justification for her fear of social interaction, and whose vulnerability is symbolized by the delicate animal figurines (of the play's title) that she cares about so deeply. And he's obligated to help support Laura and their mother, Amanda, who was abandoned by one man already, Tom's father, who worked for the telephone company and "fell in love with long distances," as Tom puts it.
Amanda knows she can hold on to Tom only a little while longer, so she urges him to bring home a suitable young man from the factory to meet Laura. An archetypal faded Southern belle, Amanda still revels in memories of the days when she received as many as seventeen gentleman callers in one afternoon. Willfully oblivious to Laura's social ineptitude, Amanda is convinced her daughter's problems stem merely from not having met the right man. Ultimately, Laura's encounter with the gentleman caller Tom brings home is both a liberation of sorts for Laura, as well as a bitter failure.
Williams's compassion for his characters in Menagerie betrays a tenderness and poignancy unequaled in his later, less poetic works, which pull fewer punches about the violence and madness inflicted by people on one another. Yet in Amanda Wingfield, a woman who manages to be domineering and barely connected to reality at the same time (can you think of two more lethal characteristics in a mother?), Williams offers up a far more subtle brutality. Watching Amanda attempting to control her children's destinies while desperately trying to salvage her own is enough to make you squirm. Watching Laura constantly fall short of Amanda's expectations can make you cry.
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As Laura in New Theatre's production, Pamela Roza balances a slightly-less-than-assertive self-awareness with crippling insecurity. Roza effectively embodies Laura's internal struggles in her scenes with the gentleman caller, Jim (played by Todd Behrend with appropriate ordinariness), notably the intimacy she achieves when she introduces him to her glass figurines, the flowering she experiences when he kisses her, and the deep resignation she expresses in her whole body when he tells her he won't be calling again. And she wears Laura's terror on her face with an almost campy expression. Carlos Orizondo, as Tom, credibly depicts both his attachment to Laura and his ambivalent relationship with Amanda A he wants to please his mother and flee from her at the same time. Orizondo's mannered, almost dandyish articulation of Tom's monologues doesn't ring as true, however; the anger he suppresses by being snide in his delivery does not express the spirit of a poetic dreamer.
At the center of the piece lies the doting, self-deluded Amanda, crumbling with personal regret under a veneer of gentility, a woman who suffocates her children by alternating between self-absorption and over-solicitation. Although the tall, stately Marjorie O'Neill-Butler cuts a formidable figure on stage, her narrow interpretation of Amanda as punitive doesn't allow for the character's contradictions, apart from a tremulous moment at the close of act one, when, as the Wingfield matriarch, she expresses her hopes for her daughter's future. The actress gets the controlling part down pat but never walks the line between fantasy and reality that is so crucial to this woman's characterization.
Although expertly designed, Michael Thomas Essad's beautiful stage set, dominated by mustard-yellow walls that accurately evoke the faded 1930s, suffers from being as straightforward as de Acha's direction. No shadows or shaded corners here to suggest memory; no shabbiness to imply the diminished circumstances of tenement living. In contrast, Steve Shapiro's carnival-inspired score invokes the eerie sense of a child's dream turned nightmare.
Taken as a whole, this revival of The Glass Menagerie will treat you to Williams's radiant language, interpreted by an ensemble of self-assured actors. But it will not break your heart.