By Tennessee Williams; Directed by Jef Hall-Flavin
Auckland Theatre Company
Selwyn Theatre, Auckland | May 16-June 8
My most anticipated ATC play of the year, by some margin, was The Glass Menagerie. A production of one of Tennessee Williams’s best plays with a fresh director at the helm and a top-tier cast is enough to pique the interest of any theatregoer, but my own Williams devotion made me even keener to see it, and even more hopeful that it would be a definitive production. ATC did not disappoint.
The Glass Menagerie is a deceptively simple story. Tom Wingfield (Edwin Wright) introduces the play to us as a “memory play” based on his own recollections of his mother and sister in the summer of 1937 in St. Louis. In that summer, Tom is an aspiring writer who works in a warehouse to support his ageing Southern belle mother Amanda (Elizabeth Hawthorne) and his crippled and cripplingly shy sister Laura (Antonia Prebble). Amanda provides most of the play’s conflict, determined for her children to do the best they can in life: for Tom to get a good job, and for Laura to get married. The latter of these wants is the focus of the play: she persuades Tom to get one of his friends (Richard Knowles) to come to the house so Laura can present herself to him with the aim of marrying him.
It’s a simple plot, but Williams keeps it alive with these four fascinating, layered characters and his own sparkling, stylised dialogue. It’s a credit to him that the play is neither creaky nor dated, and the dialogue sounds as natural coming out of these actors’ mouths as it likely did when it premiered. The themes of the play are also as prescient now as they were when they premiered; the idea of pursuing something you want destroying you, as much as it destroys and harms those around you.
The cast is uniformly excellent, and even that sounds like I’m damning them with faint praise. Edwin Wright is subtle and understated as Tom; this isn’t the camp gay performance that you might except an actor to fall into, but a very clever performance of a man who clearly loves his family but is driven to his ends by them, and his own feelings of inadequacy. Richard Knowles’s is also very good as Jim, Laura’s eventual gentleman caller, very much seeming to be the All American Guy™ while revealing layers of insecurities and disappointment as the second act goes on.
However, the stars of this play, for me, are the women. Laura and Amanda are undoubtedly the meatiest roles in the play with the former holding almost the entire second act to herself and the latter having some of the bigger jokes and moments to sell, and both Prebble and Hawthorne play them in a way that not only honour the characters, but elevate the entire production.
Prebble’s Laura comes off childish and girl-like, but as we see more of Laura, especially in that second act, we come to love Laura and her own charming peculiarities and flaws. She becomes the centre of the play, and we care for her as much as her family clearly does, and perhaps even more because we just want the best for her no matter what. In the best scene in the whole play, Prebble is radiant; her shyness and naked girlish desire is palpable even from halfway back in the theatre, and it’s her performance that makes the final moments of the play hit as devastatingly hard as they do. Prebble’s performance turns the play into something human, bloody, and real.
As Amanda, Hawthorne is no less impressive. It’s definitely a showy role, and as Amanda gets more delusional, there’s a chance that the character could unbalance and drown out the play. Hawthorne doesn’t play into this; she makes Amanda’s archness seem as authentic as Laura’s shyness. She also plays Amanda’s increasing delusion with tremendous subtlety and dexterity, so that even when Amanda comes out in a ridiculous old dress, we utterly believe and buy that this is Amanda. At the end of the play, when Amanda is at her wit’s end, she explodes with an anger that’s just as palpable as Laura’s own despair. It’s another moment that makes this play feel human and real. Beyond this, Hawthorne also nails some of Williams’s better burns with a spot-on accent and wicked comic timing.
As surreal as it is to see a production of this calibre in the same theatre where I did Grease in high school, ATC has made the Selwyn Theatre fit this production perfectly. Were the location apparently not so difficult to get to, it’d be a fitting venue for more professional companies to use. The stage is fitted with a revolve, which is used to great effect to change our perspective of the Wingfield house throughout the play—it is as alive and dynamic as the characters are. It also provides the aforementioned devastating final moments of the play, which I won’t spoil here, but it’s a moment where every part of the play—performance, costume, score, lighting, and set—comes together to create something truly beautiful and unique.
In saying that, the production elements of the play are not always successful. The boxes are an apt evocation of Tom’s memory; they’re as much a part of it as his family is, but makes the stage seem cluttered at times. Apart from this, John Parker’s set is largely successful—the Wingfield house is evoked with a few key pieces of set and props (although the miming of some props and not others was a little bit jarring at first). Adrian Hollay’s sound design is also largely grand and evocative, even though at times it can seem to be too directly telling us what to feel in a scene.
Simon Barker’s projections are also a key part of play working. Rather than the slideshow prescribed by Williams’s scripts, we are given subtle projections against a large back wall and the aforementioned boxes, of the absent Wingfield father and the factory. It’s a beautiful way of making the play current while still staying true to Williams’s intentions.
Bonnie Burril’s lighting design and especially Elizabeth Whiting’s costume design are unqualified triumphs. Burril’s lighting is simply gorgeous, especially with one brilliant use of footlights to amp up the romantic atmosphere of a scene, and Whiting’s costumes are stunning and complex, while also being very true to the characters. From Amanda’s ridiculous second act Carmen Miranda-esque get-up to Laura’s gorgeous satin prom-like dress, they’re as key to us understanding and feeling the play as the performances are.
Ultimately, I have to give huge credit to ATC and especially director Jef Hall-Flavin for giving us not only a great production of The Glass Menagerie, but a brave one. It would’ve been easy to throw simple design and staging at us, gild it with top-rate actors and rake in the cash, but in a new venue we’re given a production that uses new technology and designs to keep the play current while still keeping it true to Williams’s ideas and intentions all those years ago.
A flat-out triumph. See it.