By ELLIE COOPER.
Imagine yourself struggling in a time of scarcity and dissatisfaction; your life is a mundane routine. You become trapped in an illusion to escape this desperate reality, as do your family. In fact, “the huge middle class of America [are] matriculating in the school for the blind”. You possess artistic aspirations and yearn to set them free. You are shackled, not physically for you are able bodied, but emotionally, for you are bound to those dependent upon you. And if you flee, if you escape, will you ever truly be free?
This is the delicate environment constructed by Adam Cook’s direction of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. This is a worthy final production by Cook, who is leaving as the State Theatre Company’s longest serving Artistic Director. Cook is true to Williams’ creative vision, from the cleverly constructed fire escape, to the rose coloured lamp, to the cross-stitch program design. The culmination of small details creates an atmosphere where nostalgia comes to life.
The Glass Menagerie is a ‘memory play’, set in 1930’s St Louis during the Great Depression. Tom Wingfield is the protagonist, his role alternating from narrator to reliving his own memories. Through delving into his past we are introduced to his overbearing mother Amanda, a faded Southern belle, and his older sister Laura, crippled physically and emotionally. The absence of their father looms over them, “a telephone man who fell in love with long distances”. Tom struggles to reconcile his sense of familial duty and a desire to pursue his dreams.
Prospects of a brighter future seem within reach following the news of an impending ‘gentleman caller’ for Laura. Enter the young, handsome and enigmatic Jim O’Connor.
The play, first produced in 1944, contains a confessional element, mirroring aspects of Williams’ own life. The writer’s guilt over abandoning his family to pursue his art is transferred to Tom. In The Glass Menagerie, Williams explores the haunting nature of memory, particularly those of his own sister, which followed him throughout life. He once described the play as: “a nauseous thing, an act of compulsion, not love. Just some weird necessity to get my sister on paper”.
The beginning of the play is genuinely magical. Tom, in character, addresses the audience with nuanced observations before evolving into his memory. I’ll admit, this initially irritated me, as I prefer to nut out motifs and themes myself; but in retrospect, I can appreciate how this detachment is essential. Tom declares, “I give you the truth in the pleasant disguise of illusions”. This oppositional approach to a typical play, in which an illusion is disguised as a truth, is intriguing. As Tom transitions away from narrator, the set comes to life. An intricate system of strings gracefully pulls the walls into place and creates the frame in which the powerful acting will take place.Seeped in melodrama and symbolism, the play takes on an ethereal quality.
The entire production is set in the small apartment, with only the dining and living rooms and fire escape on display. It is simplistic, but what one might expect of the era; a lattice baked sun bed, textual fabrics, a Victrola. Dunstan Playhouse is a suitably small venue which compliments this intimate setting. The lighting, designed by Mark Pennington, provides another dimension to the play, signifying the emotional climate through the use of delicate hues. The glass menagerie, the play’s namesake and ultimate symbol, is made to literally glow.
The calibre of the actors is the final cherry on this masterpiece of a production. The standout performance is that of Deidre Rubenstein, as Amanda. She brings to the stage incredible energy, hands gesticulating like a gospel singer and such passion injected into her deep Southern drawl. The heated arguments between Rubenstein and Anthony Gooley, playing Tom, are a highlight. The tension is expertly built, and just when I think my cardiovascular system may fail from the stress, Gooley skilfully delivers a pithy line, providing comic relief and rendering me a shaky mess in my seat.
At times, Gooley, unlike the unwavering Rubenstein, strained in maintaining the rapid delivery and power of voice required in these scenes. However, he brilliantly embodied his character’s personality. Gooley’s final narration was particularly poignant and, away from the initial melodrama, the true sadness of the play emerged.
Kate Cheel is Laura and, although initially overshadowed by Rubenstein and Gooley, shines in the latter part of the play. Cheel has taken on a weighty role that she performs admirably. She has the least number of lines; yet the symbols, plot and lighting revolve around her character. Consequently, Cheel has carefully cultivated mannerisms that reveal more than words and adapt to compliment her character’s transformation.
Cheel was so involved with her character that she visibly struggled to regain composure when the play finished and the actors were receiving applause. The audience raved about her performance afterwards, and for many she was the darling of the play.
In the words of Tom, Jim O’Connor is “the long-delayed but always expected something we live for”. Acted by Nic English, Jim is as genial and charming as his description suggests.
Williams has crafted a lyrical exploration of the human condition and Cook has masterfully directed it. The themes of reality and illusion, and the impossibility of true escape have reverberated throughout the decades. The play is a timeless classic and holds truths still relevant today.
If you have ever felt trapped on the hamster wheel of life; if you’ve ever thought that your best years are behind you; if you’ve ever spent so much time around the house that your mother feels the need to meddle in your love life; or if you’ve ever longed for something more, then pen The Glass Menagerie into your diary before the end of May.
The State Theatre is running The Glass Menagerie at The Dunstan Playhouse until the 26th of May. For tickets and information, visit http://www.statetheatrecompany.com.au/