Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Glass Menagerie: The Ugly Truth

Photo by Sanne Peper
As mother and son wrap their hands around each other’s hands, there is kindness, understanding, frustration, control, and acquiescence.  Sam Gold’s minimalist production of The Glass Menagerie with the Toneelgroep Amsterdam company focuses on touch and the intimacy between the family members of this American classic.  Although this is a “memory play” and Gold’s moments of magical staging emphasize Tom Wingfield’s imagined recollections, it is the tactile that leaves a lingering impression.  Never have the concerns of the Wingfields felt so grounded and corporeal amidst the theatrical space of memory.*   

Amanda Wingfield (Chris Nietvelt) is not the larger-than-life Southern belle living in a reverie of the past in this production.  She is, instead, a mother desperate to sort out what will become of her disabled daughter, Laura (Hélène Devos).  Laura is in physical agony and wears a painful brace on her leg to move herself around.  She comforts herself with her phonograph and a collection of glass animals. Amanda sets about to have her son Tom (Eelco Smits) help her solve the problem of Laura.  Amanda wears Tom down over time and he agrees to invite one of his coworkers to dinner, Jim O'Conner (Harm Duco Schut), so he can introduce him to Laura.  There is real affection between Amanda and Tom, but with each brush of her hand and touch, Amanda is pushing Tom further and further away. 

All that we see comes from Tom and so these impressions are his interpretation of events.  As Tom sets the stage for the story he (via Gold’s direction) positions Jim, “the gentleman caller,” in a balcony overlooking the stage and Jim observes Tom’s story until he is called for—popping open a can of soda at one moment and sucking on candies while he waits to enter the scenario.  But he’s always there waiting.    

Gold extends the main stage with a rectangular thrust into the audience and sets the main action beyond the proscenium on a plywood surface (scenic design is by Andrew Lieberman).  We can see the far recesses of the empty proscenium stage behind the action.  Tom starts the music and sets the scene as is often the case but the first jarring moment comes from Amanda’s entrance.  She enters the theater carrying the adult Laura hoisted over her shoulder.  Amanda climbs a set of steps and places Laura on the kitchen table.  Suddenly, Laura’s dependence feels more acute.  Amanda’s attendant care becomes very real.  When Amanda then launches in to her panic over Laura’s future, her abandonment of her typing class, and her lack of prospects, this is not frivolous.  This is not about appearances or wealth.  This is a practical concern.  What will become of Laura. 

Even Amanda’s memories of her youth and her dreamy days at Blue Mountain are delivered by Nievelt in a matter of fact way.  She never gets big or flowery.  And her chipper story of the past dies in her mouth with a bite of dessert when she mentions the husband who has abandoned them.  There’s not much reverie after that. 

Often The Glass Menagerie can make Amanda feel like a relentless fury who is endlessly nagging Tom until he has no choice but to abandon the family as his father did.  But the dynamic here is played quite differently.  After Tom and Amanda have their first big fight, Tom tries to make amends.  He sits on Amanda’s lap and apologizes for walking out during their argument. In turn, she sits on his lap to convince him to help with Laura.  She won’t relent and her presence is physical as well as verbal.  It is not an external attack (as maybe Cherry Jones played it most recently on Broadway where her strong physical presence was matched by Zach Quinto’s), but instead Nievelt makes this a closely whispered plea as she clings to Smits physically for ballast. 

For Tom, this drifting away from the family feels more like the tide pulling at him than a tidal wave.  Nievelt plays Amanda's nearly constant torrent of words like death by little duck bites, as the tiny wounds and growing discomfort pile up.  But Nievelt's steely performance is so controlled that the escalation feels ominous as it increases in desperation.  Smits, for his part, as Tom, also comes across as measured.  His affection for mother and sister are real, which makes the leaving of them the more tragic.  Though he may be telling the story post hoc, with resignation over what he has done,  during the telling of it Smits plays Tom as wholly enmeshed in the family and we watch as he tears himself from them. 

Gold also focuses on Laura’s physical struggles here.  Beside the various moments she is carried by her mother and brother, we watch as she winces in pain as she tries to swing herself from the stage steps back up to the stage on her own. Her mother and her brother rub her aching limbs to try and ease her severe discomfort.  When the brace is removed, a large red welt remains etched into her leg.  This is not a young woman who will be launching herself out into the world on her own any time soon.

The whole play comes to a head when Jim arrives. Amanda launches into hostess mode and she and the garrulous Jim explode into conversation.  Tom and Jim had been seated on the stage’s edge talking when they were interrupted by Amanda.  Tom is then left seated comically on the ground wedged between the feet of his mother and Jim's as they gab away.  They hardly notice he’s there.  He’s done his part—delivered a gentleman caller and feels he has no other purpose here.  

Gold throughout indicates Tom’s point of view and control of the story throughout.  Tom walks over to a neon sign from the dance hall and turns it on so that the dance hall music from next door starts to drift into their home (sound design by Bray Poor). Tom (via Gold’s direction) reconfigures the entire stage to allow Laura to have a brief magical and romantic moment alone with Jim,  physically far from Amanda and Tom’s interference.  Scenes like these feel theatrical, symbolic, and mannered to match Williams’s language and “memory play” intentions.  But that theatrical style is set against the way in which Gold plays out the grueling reality of Laura’s situation.  No matter what colorful stagecraft is employed to help Tom tell his story, he knows (and we know) none of this magic will last.  This production makes the ugly truth just as present. 

*Note I attended the Dutch language production without English subtitles and from other reviews I glean there was some adaption of the script for this production which I could not comment on. 

1 comment:

  1. Williams did not write a play that's centered around Laura's physical deformity. This Director has distorted what Williams wrote and had intended. Another "concept" Director obsessed with his own agenda. Sad.