Certainly Tennessee Williams is a playwright who long ago earned his place in the canon of American Dramatists and The Glass Menagerie the least controversial of his great dramas. Tom Wingfield and his sister Laura live with their mother, Amanda. Abandoned by their father, Tom has taken on his responsibilities, working at a job he hates to support his mother and sister. Laura, though a grown adult, lives in a private realm where nothing can harm her, listening to dad’s records on the Victrola and occupying her mind with a collection of delicate, miniature glass animals. Strong-minded, resolute Amanda tries her best to hold the family together, while Tom works diligently by day and blows off steam at movies and bars in the evenings. Amanda is motivated largely by fear of abandonment and poverty, Tom by guilt, and palpable feelings of tenderness for his sister.
In the second act, Tom brings home a Gentleman Caller. Not just Jim, Tom’s friend at the factory, but The Gentleman Caller. The universal savior we all anticipate to solve our unhappy lives. Tom gives Amanda such short notice, an extra note of desperation and urgency is added to the event. A beau for Laura could steady the Wingfield household, a trio of dreamers caught on a raft in an ocean of disappointment. Though I’ve seen The Glass Menagerie performed four times, I am still shocked when Laura’s fragility emboldens Jim to deliver a kiss, the most optimistic note in this paean to the tragedy of how we fail one another.
Like so many other plays (and playwrights) The Glass Menagerie and Williams are deceptively simple. There is a powerful, overwhelming undercurrent of sadness to the play that sneaks up as unexpectedly as Laura’s memory when Tom wanders the world as a Merchant Seaman. Yet Williams has no desire to submerge us in bathos. The sometimes comedic element of Amanda’s constant nagging is funny to us, because we don’t have to live with it. But the story for poor Tom (and his father?) may be quite different. When we hear Amanda describe her glory days in the Old South, it seems harmless enough, unless you live in a home that seems congealed in the past. Part of Williams’ genius is his ability to depict eccentricity without ever making it seem quaint. The beautiful passages of poetic narrative lend the show an aching inevitability and depth.
When blending the delicate chemistry of Menagerie, laughter is often generated at Amanda’s expense. We can all imagine what it must be like to live with parents, when so many mothers believe it’s their job to keep their offspring in line. While sometimes Amanda verges on caricature, I believe Williams never quite crosses that line, even when she chooses an inappropriately formal gown to entertain a casual guest. That being said, I wondered if this production perhaps leaned a bit too heavily on Amanda for comic relief. The undeniable power of The Glass Menagerie is in its subtlety. The pain is genuine, but not as obvious as we’d find in Medea or Macbeth. When Tom delivers his final, wrenching yet understated monologue, the net effect of what came before felt a bit faint, though authentic. The Glass Menagerie demands so much of its actors, as if we were watching ghosts who do not know they have passed to another realm.
Theatre Three presents The Glass Menagerie playing July 30th – August 23rd, 2015. 2800 Routh Street, Suite 168, Dallas, Texas 75201. 214-871-3300. www.theatre3dallas.co