Culture  A Williams for the modern era?

Players’ The Glass Menagerie

In the next installment of their “Season of Classics,” Players’ Theatre takes on Tennessee Williams’ semi-autobiographical The Glass Menagerie. Director Rowan Spencer approached Players’ with a “reading edition” of Williams’ work, keen to produce the most authentic version of Williams’ tale. Although this drive for textual authenticity results in an uneven quality, Spencer still manages to convey Williams’ essence of remembrance, regret, and chilling hopelessness.

The reading edition of Williams’ play is less formally linear than the traditionally performed acting edition. Spencer admits that the choppy aspect of his production can be “jarring,” but maintains that this construction conserves the feeling of what is, at its core, a memory play: disjunctured parts coming together to form a common narrative in retrospection. The rough transitions take a while to get used to, especially since Players’ relatively bare staging doesn’t hide much, if any, of the actors’ movements in between scenes. Some of the unpolished elements, though, are quite successful, such as the anachronisms in Williams’ text that were purposely retained, emphasizing the way imperfections and inaccuracies melt together in human memory.

The reading edition’s main distinction lies in the extra-literary devices speckled throughout the play. Tom, the play’s frustrated young protagonist, addresses the audience directly, intermittently playing an active part and standing aside as narrator, offering his own commentary to the audience. His direct interpellations of the audience are the most hard-hitting elements of Spencer’s production. Tom’s play-book-ending monologues are chilling in the timelessness of their prose and the clarity of the delivery, conveying the pressure of making decisions and confronting us with the haunting power of regret.

McGill student theatre societies tend to select and interpret plays in an effort to deliver productions relevant to their audiences. Laura, played by Arlen Aguayo Stewart, poses a particular challenge in this regard. With her stubborn focus on minor pastimes – pathetically fretting over her glass menagerie and her phonograph collection – she strives to isolate herself from the outside world. When her gentleman caller, Jim, arrives in the second act, Spencer’s production largely glosses over the difficulty of representing Laura’s reliance on a man’s support in a manner relevant to contemporary student audiences. Spencer sticks to Williams’ original text, failing to add any tones or mannerisms that would have made Laura less flat and more engaging for a student audience.

The main attention-grabber is Andrew Cameron’s multifaceted portrayal of Tom, as an eye-rolling, bantering opponent to Ingrid Rudié’s Amanda, who often simply fails to understand her children. Rudié’s affected Southern drawl and flourishing mannerisms are sometimes over the top, making it more difficult to perceive her as a multi-dimensional character. Cameron occasionally struggles to traverse his character’s dynamic range when he abruptly transitions from placidity to emotional outburst. Yet he still manages to aptly convey emotion as he surges from rude teenage rebellion to compassion for his differently abled sister. We navigate the various pressures Tom feels when faced with limited choices in his search for a way out of his rapidly deteriorating family life. He raises his arms to the sky, he rolls his eyes, he cradles his head in his hands – his exasperation is palpable through his gesticulations.

The idea of the glass menagerie encapsulates the world of Williams’ play. On Spencer’s set, it is right in the centre of the stage: a small cabinet with transparent panels in which Laura keeps her collection of miniature glass animals. Fragile and breakable figures, Willams’ characters are imprisoned in their own cabinet. Although Spencer’s production falls short of drawing us completely into the powerfully effecting realism of Williams’ original characters, the claustrophobic tinge to the Wingfield’s situation is well-conveyed and draws an interesting parallel to contemporary experience.