Review: The Glass Menagerie by City Theatre Company
by David Glen Robinson
The Glass Menagerie is a study in pressure cookers, a modernist work, and a snow globe of the 20th century age of alienation. Much has been written about the play and its author Tennessee Williams, including how the play very likely models significant features of Williams’ family as he was growing up. Many call it a memory play.
None of that matters. The Glass Menagerie generalizes brilliantly the squirming discontents of North American family life for much of the century past. We’ve all felt those pressures, heard those curt orders, shouted those defiances back at various authority figures in our worlds.
It’s all just a little more concentrated in The Glass Menagerie. In a literary work the dialogs and speeches are direct and get right down to work raising the pressure. This is so even when Mrs. Wingfield is talking about the weather while pointing and clicking to position everyone around her like chess pieces in her masterful game. The inflections and idioms of mid-South English serve Williams’ purposes, and this is a great credit to the cast and to director Jeff Hinkle.
The story is well known. The Wingfields live in St. Louis, a family with Southern roots and an absent father who left many years previously. Mrs. Amanda Wingfield (Terri Merritt Bennett) runs the household where her grown children Tom (Ben McLemore) and Laura (Sarah Zeringue) live. Tom is the family’s sole support for income; he works at a shoe warehouse as a clerk. Laura does not work. She has a slight ambulatory impediment and is withdrawn and emotionally fragile. The family says she is shy, but that does not capture it. She is an early example of what is now called 'failure to launch' syndrome.
Mrs. Wingfield dominates the family life completely. She knows about Tom’s secret poetry-writing and tells him it is a waste of time. Tom fights back by spending most evenings in bars or at the movies. Mrs. Wingfield works assiduously at moving Laura out of the family and finally convinces Tom to bring a coworker, Jim (Donato De Luca), home to dinner one night to meet Laura. He is her “Gentleman Caller.”
The play is book-ended by two soliloquies by Ben McLemore as Tom Wingfield and a metatheatrical narrator. Each soliloquy could stand alone as a first-person short story told by Tom Wingfield as two separate characters—the person he was and the person he became. The imagery of the stories is colorful and delivered clearly and in off-handed fashion by Ben McLemore. Throughout the play his character conveys a slouching ennui within which frustration builds to explosions more than once. This emotional structure of buildups and explosive peaks is very nuanced and seemingly tossed off easily by the actor. Very well done by McLemore and Hinkle.
Terri Merritt Bennett gives us a marvelous character performance as the mother, Amanda Wingfield. Her domineering tactics feature incessant talking, sarcasm, finger-pointing, and fist-shaking. It’s all topped off with a honey-dripping Southern Belle accent that infuriates the other characters and the entire audience. Ms Bennett etches our memories with an almost archetypal characterization and doesn’t miss a line.
In City Theatre's production the Act 2 scene with Laura and Jim sitting on the living room rug is a harbor in the overall emotional storm of the play. The interaction between Laura, played by Sarah Zeringue, and Jim, played by Donato De Luca, is gentle, delicate, beautiful, and genuinely affecting. The actors time their silences exactly like two hesitant people reaching into the dark unknowns of their futures.
Here, too, playwright Williams addresses the central metaphor of the play, the glass menagerie. The tableful of fragile glass animal souvenirs, such as might be collected at county fairs and gift shops, has been well recognized as a symbolic stand-in for a fragile family breaking apart, but the collection has multiple symbolic refractions that audience members can list off for themselves upon witnessing Williams’ brilliant and direct stageplay. The work pivots at the moment of change of the unicorn, after which Laura and Jim move away from forming a connection. Laura gives the wounded unicorn to Jim as a parting gift; Jim, recognizing the importance of the item for Laura, protests. Laura insists and tells him, “It’s only a souvenir.” Laura’s gesture of giving to Jim something bright and broken and unimportant is a gesture of sending away with him her secretly gifted, broken, unimportant life; symbolically this was her last effort to seek an independent existence apart from the family.
Tom moves away after the pivot, as well. Amanda remains unmoved, but she had fought for stasis in her Southern Belle’s life anyway. More than that, she lost Tom, the sole support of the family in his job at the shoe warehouse. In this, too, is Tom’s tragedy and brokenness. He suffers a vast infliction of guilt as he leaves Laura, on whom he doted and whom could not heal.
The play moves to Tom’s final soliloquy, full of his street wanderings and everlasting love for his sister. The text now reminds one of the Beat movement’s concerns and sensibilities a few years later. Indeed, the Beats -- Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, and others -- cited Williams as a strong influence. Tom Wingfield’s hejira, its causes and consequences, may have been a specific inspiration for the “on the road” leitmotif. Tom’s misunderstood artist with a tragic secret seems to have served other artists similarly. This reviewer recalled memories of Simon and Garfunkel’s songs “The Boxer” and “The Sounds of Silence” from the late 60s.
Few contemporary playwrights deal with a central metaphor in such a multivalent fashion as does Tennessee Williams in The Glass Menagerie. Millenials will especially enjoy the depth of treatment of familial emotions that can be found in The Glass Menagerie. City Theatre’s production, including the acting, directing, and all the design fields, illuminates all the themes of the play, altogether a job well done. The play is recommended for ages 20 and older.
July 22 - August 14, 2016
3823 Airport Boulevard
Austin, TX, 78722
July 22 – August 14. Thursday - Saturday 8:00 pm. Sunday 3:00 pm.
The City Theatre, 3823 Airport Blvd. Suite D. 78722.
General Seating $15. Front/2nd Row Reserved $20-25. Thursday all seats $10.
Tickets at the door $20. Group and student discounts.
For reservations, call 512-524-2870 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org