I owe Tennessee Williams a huge favor. Because of him and his beautiful play, The Glass Menagerie, I have hundreds of unicorns adorning the bookshelves, desk tops and walls of my home. Seriously, I was never a huge unicorn fan until I wrote a paper on the symbolism of the tiny steed that Laura holds so dear. I needed an image to go with the paper and I “googled” glass unicorns. The pictures I looked through made me giggle like a little girl. Unicorns were unique and innocent, majestic without limits; our sad reality could not crush their spirit. It was then I understood the significance. The Glass Menagerie is a memory play that forces you to look at humanity in all of its frustrating honesty. It takes the tiniest aspects of life and magnifies them until you cannot help but relate. No matter how you protect something, no matter how you hold onto it, life can shatter into a million pieces, in an instant.
The first thing that struck me during this play was the set. It is simple, darling and small. When all three main characters are on stage together, just feet away from each other the energy start to spin around that tiny space, bouncing off the claustrophobic walls. When Tom exits (as he frequently does) you feel you are allowed to breathe once again. Escape. Such an intense emotion when you haven’t left your seat. Even when Tom goes out to the fire escape, he only steps off Stage Right, never actually separated from the scene. The lighting and sound capture these brief scene changes, dramatically illustrating the emotionally charged script. When Laura bends down to tend to her tiny glass animals, there is an bright white light projected on to the table top that creates pinpoints of light which dance across her face, a slight tinkling sound is heard, everything seems to stop. We are transported into a blissfully quiet moment, Zen in the midst of chaos. Amanda’s voice shatters these peaceful escapes and brings everything back into the apartment, cramped and stressful. There is also a giant white curtain that acts as a barrier between the living room and the kitchen; the only shred of separation in this space. It is lit so that you can see through it and up above so high you can’t believe the ceiling would reach that level is a giant painting of Mr. Wingfield. He was Amanda’s husband, Tom and Laura’s father, who left the family 16 years before the play takes place. This painting stays as a fixture on the stage, shining brightly through the thin veil of the curtain in an omnipresent sort of way. Although when Amanda discusses her former gentlemen callers, the painting fades slowly away into the background. When she is done with her reminiscing, the painting comes back, looming over the family. An ominous reminder of what Amanda fears Tom will become. The sound and lighting cues are small, yet they create such a huge change in that small space that the effect is massive.
The aesthetics of this play are incredible, but it would be too much if the actors didn’t unleash the emotions to match them. Until this performance, I have never truly understood Amanda Wingfield, I had humored my professor in college when he told me she was one of the most important characters a female could play. I didn’t get it. She was annoying, overbearing and relentless. She speaks as if her life and Laura’s are one in the same, stating over and over again, “we” need this and “we” can’t do that, completely arresting all possibilities of Laura ever being independent. How could you love a character that crushes any unique thought or interest her child has? How could you love a woman who constantly manipulates her children into submission? Who thinks that her daughter’s only way to happiness is through marriage? Suzanne Bouchard’s Amanda Wingfield is completely fearless. She is a force to be reckoned with. She tames Amanda at times, using her Southern charm in ways that require the audience to swoon. I admit that I was afraid at first that Bouchard had made her comical. I was laughing a little in places that I had never realized humor to be, I had never before seen Amanda as funny. I found later that I was laughing at the honesty. The frankness of the language, the way she is so brazenly unapologetic, it was more familiar than I had realized. I knew Amanda, I felt myself cringe and squirm. I had lived with her for all these years and had no idea. Bouchard brings out Amanda’s true objectives, you see her in moments of clarity and you see her completely vulnerable. I finally heard her fear and saw the love in her character. Desperation replacing annoyance, she is trying to survive and hold together a family while her youth crumbles around her, the only weapon she ever had was her beauty. And as that fades, what does she have to cling to? She is a beautiful and complicated mess, so truly human, ultimately wishing only for happiness and good fortune.
Tom, played by Ben Huber, is working hard at becoming an escape artist. Leaving home on a nightly basis to see magicians perform tricks, watch movies depicting adventure that seem to be lifetimes away from his own routine reality. Huber plays Tom with stability and grace, his interaction with Laura is that of a brother who was forced to play a father’s role in his early adolescence. He has been warned on a daily basis that all of his father’s genetic flaws have been passed down to him; alcohol abuse, a dreamer’s ambivalence, abandonment. He doesn’t know how to steer away from the path that has so clearly been drawn out for him. Escape, it’s the only way he can be his own man. Tom is a poet and is able to see his sister Laura, played beautifully by Brenda Joyner, in a way that his mother never will. He sees her fragile heart and is troubled by the fact that he can’t shield it from the world around her. The interaction between Huber and Joyner is heartbreaking, a brother and sister bound together in mutual dependence. Laura has been crippled by birth, walking with a limp, paralyzed by self-doubt and her mother’s insecurities. She lives a simple life, enjoying listening to her father’s old records and collecting tiny glass animals in which she polishes and rearranges daily. Amanda has instructed Tom that he cannot leave the family until Laura marries, until she is properly taken care of. This becomes the central plot of the play and Amanda releases the duty of finding a suitable companion for Laura, onto Tom. This is his last mission, as a father figure and as a good brother. After this, he is free.
Upon exiting The Glass Menagerie, I feel completely revived. After seeing great live theatre, this is what you should feel. I feel proud that this show is playing in my home town, at my favorite theatre. I want to give Braden Abraham a hug. I want to give him a standing ovation. I cannot put into words what I feel about his “re-imagination” and direction of this classic because I am not sure it was a “re-imagination.” I feel like we have seen exactly what Tennessee Williams wanted his audiences to see, and felt exactly what we were intended to feel. Abraham harnessed something truly special. He made this incredibly stressful, fragile play into something absolutely accessible to the modern day audience. It could not have come at a better time. In a world dying for escapism, we theatre goers are rewarded with this intimate spectacle. And we are reminded of the simple pleasures we take for granted. “Look up at the moon, and wish for happiness and good fortune.” I for one am fortunate that I got to see this astounding play and I would encourage you to do the same.