THE GLASS MENAGERIE by Tennessee Williams (Shaw Festival). At the Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake. Runs to October 12. $33.90-$149.16. shawfest.com. Rating: NNNN
Like the symbolic figurines at the heart of the play, Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie requires a delicate touch. Hungarian director László Bérczes finds just the right balance of poetry and magic to ensure it shimmers and sparkles without breaking.
Remarkably, this is the first time the Shaw Festival has staged the play, and the choice to perform it in the in-the-round Studio Theatre works beautifully. Walking into the dimly lit venue – with the mementos and modest, shabbily genteel 1930s furniture of Balázs Cziegler’s set within reach – feels like entering another world, one that’s suffused with memories.
That’s appropriate because, as narrator Tom Wingfield (André Sills) reminds us at the top of the show, this is a memory play set, as the script dictates, “now and the past.” Significantly, Sills’s Tom, clad in contemporary clothes, greets us even before the production begins, performing a simple magic trick and reciting a bit of Shakespeare to underline the work’s themes. It’s a fascinating detail that stresses Tom’s control over the events, as well as the work’s intrinsic autobiographical nature.
And it leads us seamlessly into Williams’s bittersweet domestic tale, in which Tom’s mother Amanda (Allegra Fulton) attempts to secure some stable future for her daughter, Laura (Julia Course), who’d rather stay at home playing with her glass collection than interact with anyone outside her family.
Following Williams’s stage note that says Tom can take licence with dramatic convention, Bérczes allows lots of unrealistic details into the production. The photograph of the missing Wingfield patriarch is represented by an empty mirror stand. And certain moments – heightened by Mikael Kangas’s evocative lighting and a sensitive, uncredited sound design – dip into fantasy then back again.
Under Bérczes’s firm direction, there’s an affectionate rapport between each member of the family. The way Sills and Course laugh and tease each other when Amanda recalls her former gentlemen callers and potential husbands has the ring of authenticity. So too does the gentle, then not-so-gentle fighting between mother and son.
Fulton, in her Shaw debut, has lightened her voice to present a woman who, even though she recalls her romantic past, has a steel core of realism and practicality. It’s easy to see the charming flirt she was in her youth, and the way she dominates a conversation with her singsong cadences is captivating without ever being pitiful.
Sills effectively captures Tom’s restlessness and poetic spirit, pacing the set, glowering from the exterior of the stage area and, in one of the production’s most heartbreaking scenes, drunkenly imagining escaping his dead-end life without hurting anyone. Course, her posture evoking a lifetime of insecurity, communicates Laura’s dream world through whispered play-acting with her glass figures that’s poignant yet never sentimental. And Jonathan Tan brings an intelligence and forthrightness to Jim, an outsider who quickly comprehends the mini drama he’s entered.
The best productions of this play remind you of something from a waking dream. Don’t be surprised if images, lines and snatches of music from this production haunt you afterwards. It’s that good.