Tennessee Williams’ ‘memory play’ The Glass Menagerie, is better seen with a little context. Eamon Flack, director of the Malthouse’s production playing now until 5 June, recognises the importance of the autobiography behind the play and has put important information into the program guide, which is worth reading before entering the theatre.
A production that makes no attempts to assimilate itself into the modern day, Flack and co. have staunchly stuck to Williams’ script. Set designer Michael Hankin has done a valiant job in recreating that impoverished Wingfield apartment where the action—or inaction—takes place.
In this way, you’re thrown straight into the setting after a little ‘social background’ from Tennessee Williams’ stand-in Tom Wingfield (Luke Mullins), and it can feel jarring. It helps to know that the shy, mentally unstable Laura Wingfield (Rose Riley) is a stand-in for Williams’ own sister, who was lobotomised to ‘cure’ her of her illness, or that the playwright’s mother, just like Amanda Wingfield (Pamela Rabe), was abandoned by her drunkard husband. The emotion behind the play becomes more significant when you consider that all Tom’s frustrations—working in a shoe factory and writing poems on the back of receipts, spending his nights drinking and trying to deal with his burgeoning homosexuality—were Tennessee’s own, and that this ‘memory play’ (his first success) was a kind of purging, after he abandoned his family to become a successful playwright in New York City.
The crew has worked hard to conjure up the spirit of the time. Following Mullins’s introduction Stefan Gregory’s lively and moody string pieces infuse the play with a sense of Hollywoodised emotion. Set-pieces like the record player, the candlestick phone and the white, netted curtains all feel authentic. The crew has even gone so far as to include twin projector screens on either sides of the stage, an instruction in Williams’ original script that was never used during the show’s original run on Broadway. These projectors further harken back to Hollywood’s golden age, with black and white video displays of the actors while they reminisce. Being so similar to a cheesy midday movie, this segment winds up being perhaps more parodic than Williams would have intended, but here it works as a welcome injection of light humour.
Mel Page’s costume design befits the era, from Tom’s tan suit to Laura’s dishevelled indoor clothes and Amanda’s ridiculously formal dress she puts on for the gentleman caller. This kind of attention to detail shows that this production is determined to present to its audience The Glass Menagerie as it might once have been seen.
Of course, the success of a Williams’ play comes down to the writing and performances. As the frustrated creative who feels like he’s ‘boiling inside’, Mullins brings an antsy, restless physicality to the character. He’s difficult to like but he’s playing a character who doesn’t much like himself. Mullins shines most when he spits vitriolic irony at his mother, or when he gazes at Laura with a fatalistic concern. Occasionally his tantrums burst like a balloon popped by accident, the ferocious outbursts feeling incongruous with his character.
Seasoned actress Pamela Rabe is in her element, with an unforgettable performance equal parts funny, tragic and cringe worthy. She deeply sympathises with her character, bringing a likeability to her which wouldn’t be easy to find in a depressed and lonely matriarch whose own children are a bitter disappointment to her. Donning the ridiculous dress in the second half, Rabe plays the character teetering on the edge of a complete breakdown. It’s utterly compelling to watch.
As the gentleman caller, Jim O’Connor, Harry Greenwood does a fine job of entering the stage when so much chemistry between the players has already been established. In his grey suit he fittingly slots in as the jigsaw piece that completes the picture. Perhaps the most fictionalised figure in the play, his dalliance with Laura seems to say all the things Williams wanted his own sister to hear, but she never did. Given the context it’s the most gut-wrenching scene to watch and Greenwood does it justice.
Unfortunately, Riley allows her character to recede a little too much into the background, when Laura’s silences should be deafening and heartbreaking. She believably performs the character’s limp, but doesn’t as easily slot into her character’s psychology as her co-stars seem to. Where she should lose herself in the words, Riley appears to be thinking about them too much. Feigning a staccato speaking-style and slight stammer, she manages only to superficially communicate Laura’s chronically shy character.
The Malthouse’s The Glass Menagerie only fails when it doesn’t vividly recreate Williams’ script. In this way, it is a little trapped by the limitations of representation: a slight delay on the projector screens harms the seamless transitions, Riley’s accent never quite comes across as believably Southern and sometimes the humour detracts from the anguished undertone of the play, pulling audiences out of it. It is, otherwise, an engrossing production with some excellent performances and an attractive set design.