The Glass Menagerie | BelvoirLeft – Luke Mullins. Cover – Pamela Rabe. Photos – Brett Boardman

In his program notes for The Glass Menagerie, director Eamon Flack highlights the dualities at the heart of the play: ‘truth and illusion, penury and theatrical grandeur, delicacy and brutality, eternal life and momentary fragility’. The great achievement of this production, imported from Sydney’s Belvoir, is the exquisite tension it establishes – and maintains – between these dualities. This is a deeply intelligent reading of a classic play, one that manages to be both contemporary and of its own time; a memory play that is (as playwright Tennessee Williams intended it to be) a ‘penetrating and vivid expression of things as they are’.

The action begins with Tom Wingfield (Luke Mullins) sauntering onto the stage. He is in the guise of the poet he will one day become. He places the action – 1930s America – and reminds us that the play we’re about to see is one that has been filtered through his own poetic sensibility – ‘I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion’.

What Tom’s memory reveals is the tiny tenement apartment in which he lives with his mother, Amanda (Pamela Rabe), and his sister, Laura (Rose Riley). Amanda was once a southern belle, entertaining as many as seventeen gentleman callers in a single afternoon. She might have been the wife of a plantation owner with servants of her own, but instead she married a ‘man who worked for the telephone company’, a man who has since deserted her.

Tom has taken on the burdens cast off by his absent father. He works in a shoe factory in order to support his mother and sister, but takes any opportunity – in the factory bathroom, on the lid of a shoebox – to write poetry. He bristles against his mother’s constant scrutiny and escapes ‘to the movies’ with a frequency that alarms his mother.

Laura is crippled and lives largely in her own world, where she plays music on a phonograph and tends to her menagerie of glass animals: nervous sickness has overwhelmed her to the point where she can no longer function in strange company. Seeing no other option but to find Laura a husband, Amanda persuades Tom to invite home from work a ‘gentleman caller’ (Harry Greenwood).

What Williams most wanted for this play is emotional truth, and this production gives us that in spades. The Glass Menagerie takes its time to unravel, and Flack allows it all the space it needs, neither forcing the drama nor taking unnecessary shortcuts through the action (most notable in the long, finely paced scene between Laura and the gentleman caller). Nuanced performances underscore the characters’ conflicting urges, and the production overall is carefully weighted, the relationship between Tom and Amanda – Laura positioned as fulcrum – delicately balanced.

Pamela Rabe gives an empathetic and measured performance as Amanda, avoiding the sort of histrionic turn that can often throw the play out of kilter. We get girlishness and whimsy, but we also get the middle-aged woman who understands all too well that her moment has passed. And while we watch Amanda’s purposeful manipulation of her children, we’re made acutely aware of the regret, the loss, and above all the fear, that drive her.

Luke Mullins captures keenly the torment of a man trapped, someone whose instincts – romantic and sensitive – are being daily blunted by the circumstances in which he finds himself. You can see in Tom’s every gesture, every utterance, the battle going on within him, and it’s one of the best performances I’ve seen Mullins give.

There’s both fragility and strength in Rose Riley’s Laura. We’re aware of the nervous anxiety that’s threatening all the time to engulf her, but here it’s partnered by a tentative spirit, something that might prosper given the right conditions. And it’s affecting to watch as she lights up – dares to dream – when she's exposed to the gentleman caller’s attention.

As Jim, the gentleman caller, Harry Greenwood is the epitome of the American future, with all its assurance and self-regard. A man who is ‘disappointed, but … not discouraged’, he’s everything that Tom isn’t, a pragmatist whose dapper suit and constant attention to appearance underpins his determination to get ahead. It’s a performance tempered by an easy likeability, the sense of a man who recognises more fanciful paths through life, but who dares to entertain them only fleetingly.

It’s such a treat to have a production of a classic play that works with the text rather than fighting against it. Flack makes judicious use of Williams’ original design notes for the play, using filmed close-ups (designed by Sean Bacon) to heighten the wistfulness and nostalgia, while all the time reminding us that it’s Tom’s memory which is fashioning these events.

Michael Hankin’s set design is an effective rendering of Williams’ ‘cellular’ apartment, full of hidden corners which only Tom’s recollections can illuminate for us. Mel Page’s costumes are convincing, and there are some nice notes, particularly Amanda’s old courting frock which doesn’t quite fasten and out of which her bosom threatens to spill. The sound design by Stefan Gregory is perfectly evocative, and lighting by Damien Cooper conjures just the right mood.

This is a fabulous production of a bittersweet play. And while there’s heartbreak at its core, it’s impossible to forget that what we’re witnessing here are the emotional body blows – the deceptions and evasions – that forged, in Williams, an extraordinary poet. 

Belvoir presents
The Glass Menagerie
by Tennessee Williams

Director Eamon Flack

Venue: Merlyn Theatre | 113 Sturt Street, Southbank VIC
Dates: 18 May – 5 June 2016
Tickets: $65 – $35

A Belvoir production

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