A surprising production of the Tennessee Williams play is now on stage in Toronto
The Howland Company and 73H Productions have offered up an eerie and atypical production of Tennessee Williams’ classic The Glass Menagerie. If you are already in love with this play like I am, you cannot afford to miss this austere, cool, vibrant production. If you’re not familiar with the text, this is a great introduction; it honours the spirits of desperation and hope that haunt this poetic classic.
The story concerns the Wingfield family, cooped up in a tiny St. Louis apartment during the Great Depression. The mother, Amanda, is an aging, nostalgic southern belle, regaling her adult children with tales of the Old South and her youthful glory. Her son, Tom, is a thoughtful poet who clings to alcohol and furtive, late-night activities he claims to be “the movies” in order to cope with his dismal circumstances. And then there is poor Laura, painfully shy and lost in a world of tiny glass figurines.
No attempt has been made to confine the design elements to the period. Rather, the production feels removed from any specific era yet gives us tiny, specific details that feel current. Adriana Bogaard’s set and costumes have a generic, colourless, drab quality. Particularly depressing are the faded linoleum flooring and Laura’s grey, oversized cardigan.
The one striking use of colour comes in the final act, when we meet the forth character, the Gentleman Caller. His bright red shirt speaks of a grounded confidence and vivacity that seems appropriately foreign in the dreary and claustrophobic Wingfield world.
Filling that red shirt amply, is Samer Salem as that Gentleman Caller. In every production I’ve seen to date, he’s played as cheerful, but relatively mannered. Here, though, with that red shirt unbuttoned to reveal a chiseled chest, Salem makes him far more carnal. He feels boisterous and good natured, but more unpredictable and wild. He’s that cocky guy at a club who is probably talking bullshit, but you don’t mind because you think he means well and he’s sexy and he’s paying attention to you.
Tracey Hoyt’s Amanda seems less frail and silly than I’ve seen. Her giddy stories of her youth are tedious and frivolous, but this Amanda isn’t so much lost in the memories as intentionally preening them as if in preparation for some important future use.
James Graham allows all of Tom’s guilt to take him over. He hunches over and turns away from people, wanting to share his feelings, but avoiding, at every possible turn, any prolonged eye contact for fear of exposing those parts of himself of which he is most ashamed.
And Laura…poor Laura. A childhood illness has left her with a limp and crippling social anxieties. Hannah Spear is just unbearably oppressed here, not by external circumstances but her own inability to trust that the world might accept her contribution to it. Spear makes all of Laura’s awkwardness quietly fascinating rather than just heartbreaking.
The aspect of Philip McKee’s production that most surprised and delighted me was the way he and Spear unpack Laura. Usually, as written, we don’t find out much about her interior world until she opens up in the final scene, but here: we are given a proper glimpse into her as a sexual creature and an obsessive artist.
Laura’s obsession with her glass animal collection is conventionally depicted with a longing gaze and gentle fondling, but here Laura makes these glass figures herself. She dons goggles and work gloves, she scores and snaps glass with power and precision. This Laura is focused, attentive and active with her glass.
The glass isn’t just pretty and fragile, it is also intricate, hand-crafted and purposeful. This Laura has something to say, she just can’t put it into the words and actions the rest of the world recognizes as relevant.
The one directorial choice I didn’t appreciate was the final image. I’m used to a sad, simple “goodbye,” but here I was given an image that suggested a jarring new idea, one I couldn’t fully wrap my head around and which seemed ultimately distracting. Everything, up until that point, seemed perfectly in tune with the spirit of the source material.
I love this play and know it by heart. This production, as I stated earlier, surprised and delighted me.
- The Glass Menagerie is playing until September 11, 2016 at the The Theatre Centre Incubator (1115 Queen St. West)
- Please see show page for performance dates and times
- Tickets are $15 to $30 and can be purchased online by phone (416.538.0988)
Photo of Hannah Spear by Connor Low