Tennessee Williams mined his troubled upbringing in the American South in several of his plays, but none perhaps is more autobiographical than The Glass Menagerie, which kickstarted his successful playwriting career in 1944. Now it’s triumphantly revived in a co-production by the Liverpool Playhouse, the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Headlong Theatre Company.
The play’s narrator, Tom (Williams’s own first name – the nickname ‘Tennessee’ came later) guides us through episodes from his youth, portraying a claustrophobic, fatherless household in St Louis made up of Tom’s fragile, unstable sister Laura, his desperate yet determined mother and Tom himself, a figure torn between love of his family and a burning need to break away and find a different life. Williams’s own sister Rose suffered from mental health problems, and after ill-advised neurosurgery (a pre-frontal lobotomy) spent most of her life in institutions. Williams, who had already left home when the operation took place, never overcame a sense of guilt about what had happened.
The bleaker aspects of the play are underlined in this production by a stark, largely bare set, with little in the way of furnishings apart from a couple of old-fashioned floor lamps. At the back of the stage is a prominent staircase, the apartment block’s fire escape but symbolizing perhaps the possibility of other kinds of escape as well. Symbolic also is Laura’s ‘glass menagerie’, a collection of delicate, easily broken animal figures – here represented by a single unicorn. This minimalist approach lends a heightened clarity and simplicity to the play’s strong narrative arc, and compels us to focus on the dialogue, and the marvellous performances.
Greta Scacchi is wonderfully entertaining as Tom’s mother Amanda, conveying superbly the many contrasting sides of her character – anxious, strong-willed, gimlet-eyed one minute, wildly deluded the next, fiercely concerned for her children yet given to self-pity and a comical sense of her own martyrdom. She’s also one of Tennessee Williams’s classic faded Southern belles, a woman fallen on hard times who’s full of nostalgia for better days. Erin Doherty as Laura makes us feel the immense sadness of a character as lost, trapped and out of place in the world as her glass-encased unicorn. Tom Mothersdale vividly shows us Tom’s restless craving for independence and adventure, and is equally effective as his older, wiser self.
Strong shafts of wit regularly lighten the play’s sombreness, and things perk up further in the second half with the arrival of Tom’s workmate Jim – winningly played by Eric Kofi Abrefa – the kindly, outgoing ‘gentleman caller’ who just might offer Laura a chance of salvation.
There are echoes of Williams’s later plays in The Glass Menagerie (Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire seems in some ways an amalgam of Laura and her mother), and it’s easy to see why, with its moving depiction of the interplay between a group of intriguing, complex characters, it’s regarded as a modern classic. In this magnificent production, lean and uncluttered, we feel the full, unadorned power of Tennessee Williams’s writing.
The Glass Menagerie continues at the Liverpool Playhouse until Saturday 31 October. For more information, click HERE.