The Glass Menagerie is probably one of the most economical dramas ever written. It features a cast of four and a single, unchanging set that requires nothing more elaborate than some basic living room furniture, a picture of a good-looking young man, and a case filled with little glass animals. Added to the fact that it centers on characters who all call for great subtlety of dramatic portrayal, it is no wonder that this play--Tennessee Williams' first major success--has become so firmly ensconced in the repertoire of American theater.
Though there is some potential for imagination in the visual conceptualization of the play, what it usually comes down to, clean and simple, is the acting. And in this respect, the recent HRDC production acquitted itself well: all the actors rose to the occasion, doing justice to the delicately drawn characterizations.
Each of the four players is equally important in supporting, pillar-like, a corner of the drama: The Mother, Amanda Wingfield (Margaret J. Barker '98); her son, Tom, the narrator (Brett Egan '99); his sister, Laura, who is slightly crippled (Dana Gotlieb '97); and Jim O'Connor, the Gentleman Caller whose visit marks the central Event of the play (Padriac O'Reilly).
There is a curious symmetry in the distribution of weight given to each of the four characters throughout the course of the play. Though Tom's narration frames the overall story, he and his mother dominate the first half (Preparation for a gentleman caller) to give way to Laura and Jim, who come to the forefront in the second (The Gentleman calls). For awhile, Amanda Wingfield really seems to take over as the central figure--the former Southern belle whose husband went AWOL long ago, and who is forced to inhabit a world of straightened means and two children as entrapped as herself. She confronts these facts with a mixture of illusions and hard-headed realism, indulging liberally in memories of the past but desperately aware of the present and obsessively crafting would-be practical "plans and provisions" for the future.
Barker played Amanda's "persona" a bit parodically, making her endlessly repeated reminiscences and her efforts to maintain the "Southern feminine" charm of her youth seems almost gratingly ridiculous--but that is, after all, the point; Amanda's ridiculousness makes her as much a pathetic figure as a comic one. She is moreover, in her own narrow-minded way, a fighter who puts a brave if silly face on things and who stubbornly refuses to admit defeat--which makes the cruelty of her final breakdown, powerfully portrayed by Barker, all the more painful.
Egan made an adequate if some-what blank-faced Tom, and his interaction with his mother was always underlaid with a touch of irony on his part that rendered Amanda's exertions even more pitiable. There was, however, a certain want of inflection, a tendency to flatness, in his interludes as narrator and commentator, that never quite left him even in his wrenching conclusion. His expressionlessness and his languid, halting speech recalled--of all things--TV actor Luke Perry.
It was really the other two actors who took the drama to its emotional climax. Gotlieb as Laura communicated primarily through eloquent looks before the arrival of the Gentleman Caller; but opened up with marvelous expressiveness in the tete-a-tete with her former high school "crush." In face, voice, and gesture, she touchingly evoked the painful shyness and self-consciousness of the disabled girl who is given one brief chance to bloom. Yet she also possessed an air of unexpected (and deeply affecting) grace and dignity in the most heartbreaking moment of the play.
However, it was O'Reilly's performance as Jim O'Connor, the outsider, the "emissary of reality," that packed a real surprise. Right from his first entrance he exuded a breezy normality that contrasted sharply with Tom's poetic restleness, Amanda's strenuous spirits, and Laura's recessiveness. Yet Jim's own history is tinged with a different kind of pathos--that of the high school hero who simply "slowed down" after graduating. O'Reilly deftly depicted the character's undaunted narcissism (which ends up huring Laura badly), yet also made one feel the something inherently likeable and charming that had attracted her. There was real poignancy in his one moment of elevation, inspired by Laura's brief blossoming but immediately subsiding into the comfortable obliviousness of his ego.
Some interesting choices were made in the set design: most notably the picture of Tom's father, which was represented by a framed blank. This was perhaps meant to underscore the fact of his absence, or to strengthen the suggestive power of his unseen presence; whatever the reason, it certainly gave one pause. Laura's glass collection did not occupy the central position one might expect, being placed on stage right and partially obscured by the sofa. When Tom, in a fit of anger, hurled his coast at his mother, instead of knocking over the glass ornaments (as in the original script), it hit Laura herself. Perhaps the director was making a conscious decision to avoid too heavy-handed and obvious a use of the symbolism, but it is worth remembering that the glass menagerie is both the title and the central symbol of the play, and figures prominently in the interchange between Laura and Jim.
The choice of Baroque music for "Laura's theme" was still more questionable; something simpler, more ethereal, and more delicate, like the fragile glass animals, would seem to be in order rather than the elaborate ornamentation of a Bach violin concerto. The lighting, on the other hand, was fairly standard, shifting from an initial dimness to "candlelight" in the crucial Laura-Jim scene, to complete darkness as Laura blows the candle out. A wise choice if not a particularly exciting one: conventionality doesn't detract from its emotional effectiveness.
All in all, this Glass Menagerie was a solid production, well acted and competently staged. It didn't reach new heights or strike new directions but it did demonstrate a firm grasp of the basics. And that's enough for a play this powerful to do its own work.