Tennessee Williams' classic play given new life

August 17, 2022
Joel Jackson and Mandy McElhinney in The Glass Menagerie. Photo provided by Black Swan Theatre
Joel Jackson and Mandy McElhinney in 'The Glass Menagerie'. Photo supplied by Black Swan Theatre

The Glass Menagerie
By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Clare Watson
Starring Mandy McElhinney, Joel Jackson, Jake Fryer-Hornsby, Acacia Daken, Tom O’Halloran
Black Swan Theatre Company, Perth, until August 21

According to director, Clare Watson, The Glass Menagerie “is an indictment on American Capitalism that rings out with alarming urgency to our times”.

She is proven right, as the play dives deep into the excoriating effects that alienation has on working class people, refracted through the prism of one small family.

Set in Saint Louis during the 1930s' Great Depression, the play is semi-autobiographical, grappling with the dysfunctional family in which Tennessee Williams was raised. Each character demonstrates illusions in themselves and their life situation as they squirm under the weight of poverty and lost dreams.

There are references to the Spanish Civil War and the rebellious upsurge in the labour movement in the US, which were both raging at the time. However, within the Wingfield family, it is the intensity of their relationships and their personal failures that occupies them, bringing them to their own civil conflict.

Tom Wingfield works in a warehouse by day to support the family but is desperate to escape into his own writing or by “going to the movies”. His sister Laura is self-conscious about her disability and withdraws from the outside world, devoting herself to her glass menagerie, made up of tiny delicate glass animals.

The glass figurines symbolise the Wingfield family itself, frozen in miniature, unreal and fragile.

Their mother, Amanda, tries to engineer her adult children’s behaviour and their aspirations. She reminisces about her younger years as a Southern Belle, a flirtatious and popular Mississippi Delta socialite with many “gentlemen callers”.

In this production the n-word has been excised from her first act monologue, where she mentions servants.

As the Afro-American historian, W E B Du Bois explained, even poor whites in the American South received a “psychological wage” from Jim Crow racism. “They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white,” he wrote. “They were admitted freely [to various restricted amenities and milieux] with all classes of white people…”

It is this racially elevated society that the mother longs for, the “psychological wage” she craves.

The “gentleman caller” who finally comes into the family home, Jim O’Connor, has illusions of his own. He believes in the power of capitalism to lift him out of the hum-drum life he inhabits. His eyes light up as he talks about money, knowledge and power. “That's the cycle democracy is built on,” he blurts out.

Despite the bleak outlook, this Black Swan production avoids over-loading the audience with despair, with the cast cleverly mining the script for humour to balance the mood.

The humour and the pathos both fall away in Tom’s powerful final soliloquy, delivered directly to the audience, where actor Joel Jackson speaks straight to the heart of his relationship with Laura, a poignantly honest moment.

To uphold to human dignity in the face of crushing circumstances is the achievement of this production.

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