The Glass Menagerie – Gate Theatre – Review by Paddy McGovern
Until Sat – 1st June, 2019
It is not often that one comes away from a Dublin theatre with such a sense of complete satisfaction as from Tom Cairns’s production of Tennessee Williams’s classic play, The Glass Menagerie, at the Gate Theatre. Written in 1944 and set in 1930’s St Louis, Missouri, the piece presents the emotional and material struggle of Amanda Wingfield and her adult children, Tom and Laura and their lives of quiet desperation. The characters are frustrated, unfulfilled, frequently teetering on the brink of neurotic collapse, reflecting the playwright’s view of the hollowness of the American Dream, of a society where happiness and prosperity inevitably follow effort and determination as well as his own sexual repression.
Amanda takes refuge in her accounts of the beaux (her “gentlemen callers”) who courted her in a past life that has been well embellished in the retelling. Tom is based on Williams himself. His restlessness and feeling of being trapped in a cage reflect the homosexual author’s reaction to living in the ultra-conservative Deep South, USA. Laura is based on Williams’s sister, Rose, who appears in one guise or another in all his plays. Her physical disability sets her apart in a society that demands perfection and a lot of the drama focuses on her mother’s heroic efforts to maintain the pretence that it is only a small matter. If her brother will just bring home a suitable young man, all will be well.
Tom doubles as narrator of the play, introducing scenes and commenting on the action, almost in the manner of a Greek ‘chorus’. Marty Rea excels in the demands of both, moving effortlessly between them. Rea leaves us in no doubt that Amanda’s suspicions that his lengthy absences “at the cinema” in fact involve something darker, something that cannot be said openly, are not misplaced.
Samantha Bond is superb. She combines Amanda’s neurotic vulnerability with a steely determination to look after her daughter. Bond cajoles, soothes and wheedles to get her way but, when this fails, vents her rage on Tom and shrieks at Laura. Her Amanda is complex – credible and, despite her maddening ways, sympathetic too. We never doubt her love and concern for her children, especially her fear for what may become of Laura when she herself is gone.
Zara Devlin’s Laura is exquisitely underplayed. Her anxiety is conveyed in minute gestures that she strives to conceal. She strains to achieve something of her mother’s composure and struggles to conceal a young woman’s natural, romantic longing. She embodies the vulnerability, fragility and delicacy of the tiny glass animal figures of the play’s title. Frank Blake’s Jim O’Connor, the gentleman caller, is the perfect foil to Laura, a well-meaning, athletic, all-American, boy-next-door type of guy, now living on the memory of his popularity and heroics in high-school days. He is open and guileless, a Mr. Reality figure, who can only wreak havoc in the Wingfield household, built on fantasy and evasion.
The crucial scene, where romantic fulfilment for Laura seems momentarily possible before illusion collapses into reality, is almost unbearable. Her self-doubt is suspended long enough to convince us that happiness and fulfilment may not elude her forever after all. When reality breaks the surface, Devlin barely flinches, just shrinks and sidles away, like a punctured inflatable. Her delivery of “you won’t come again” suggests not so much her disappointment as a quiet resolve not to drop her emotional guard again. Cairns’s pacing has built perfectly to this scene which could serve as a masterclass for young actors.
Phrases like “a flawless cast”, “superb direction” and “a must see” appear all too frequently in theatre reviews but in the case of this production, such descriptions are fully deserved.
Cast includes Frank Blake, Samantha Bond, Zara Devlin, and Marty Rea.
Director and DesignerTom Cairns
Costume DesignerLorna Marie Mugan
Lighting DesignerPaul Keogan
Sound DesignerSinéad Diskin
Voice CoachGavin O’Donoghue
Assistant Set DesignerJacob Hughes
Assistant Director/PAJack Reardon