After writing plays for eight years, “The Glass Menagerie” was Tennessee Williams first successful play. Opening on Broadway in 1944, it won the New York drama Critics’ Circle Award the next year. Williams would go on to write “A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Night of the Iguana,” and another two dozen major plays and along with Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill, is considered among the greatest American playwrights of the 20th century. But it was “Menagerie” that started it all. Arden Theatre, which already produced “Streetcar” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” has opened the 2022-23 season with “The Glass Menagerie.” It is a strong production, not falling into the over-the-top acting traps that made the film version in 1950 mediocre and by some critics, a failure..
The Wingfield’s live in a small apartment in St. Louis. Their income comes from their son Tom, who works in a warehouse in a job he despises. His sister Laura is a cripple who is painfully shy. She fears that she will never attract a “gentleman caller,” that her mother wants for her. Their mother Amanda, on the other hand is constantly reminding them how beautiful she was and had 17 gentleman callers on a single evening. But we are also aware the her husband left the family, never return, many years ago. It is a very fractured family.
Amanda escapes through her memories. Tom escapes by going out to movies, long into the night. But Laura cannot escape, and her mother convinces Tom to bring to dinner, a man, any man from work, who might remove the burden of her daughter and support them.
Amanda IS a force to be reckoned with. Whether her husband left because he couldn’t deal with her or that she became the way she is, because he left, we never find out. In trying to control their lives, she is constantly telling her adult children what they must do, just as Williams’ mother did. Krista Apple gives a fine performance in portraying Amanda as a real person and not a caricature.
Hanna Brannau is even more powerful as Laura. We feel her struggle in her attempts to move about, in her body posture, and in her anxious face. We understand her struggles without a word, and when she does speak, we listen and we care.
Tom Wingfield is not only a character, Amanda’s son- he is also the narrator, outside the play, observing the goings on with his mother, his sister, and with Jim, the gentleman caller in the second act. Sean Lally is superb portraying Tom- the alter ego of Williams, who grew up with a very troubled mother and fragile sister.
He recalls, then comments upon what they say- what he remembers. He even warns us at the beginning, that this is a memory play, so it might not be entirely accurate..
I did have two issues with the production. As it is a very naturalistic story, the characters often speak rapidly, they speak softly, and I missed several of their words. because on the Arden stage- in the ¾ round- they had their backs to me. Ironically, if this were a film with the camera poised in front of them, I suspect it would have been more powerful than the Hollywood production. But when I have to work that hard to hear, it makes me less engaged in the characters and their stories.
Finally, the set design was not effective. The Wingfields live in a small apartment in St. Louis. The large stage, with a minimal set did not seem to reflect their situation, despite a few props from the 30’s. The play would have been served better by a tighter space with more than just the table and chairs for the dinner and a small sofa. In tightening the space, it also would have brought the actors further downstage where it would have been easier to hear them.
Still, Arden’s production of is a good one. The disillusionment, the disappointment, and the struggles have been brought effectively to the stage by Director Terrence J. Nolen.
“The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams, Thru November 6, 2022. Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106, ardentheatre.org 215-922-1122.