The Glass Menagerie; ‘a dream in the dust and a tough little play’

THIS YEAR is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great American playwright, Tennessee Williams, and to mark the occasion the Town Hall Theatre and TheatreCorp are presenting a new production of one of his finest plays, The Glass Menagerie.

The Glass Menagerie runs at the Town Hall from Tuesday February 15 to Saturday 19 before embarking on a six venue national tour.

I know your ambitions do not lie in the warehouse

The Glass Menagerie is an autobiographical memory play in which the narrator, Tom, recalls his family life in a St Louis tenement shared with his mother Amanda and sister Laura.

The overbearing Amanda divides her time between reminiscing about the many suitors who once paid her court and browbeating her hapless daughter into finding a gentleman caller of her own.

Laura is partially crippled and painfully shy and has withdrawn from the wounding world to concentrate on her collection of glass miniatures.

The play is based on Tennessee Williams’s own guilt-ridden attempt to flee his family in order to claim his artistic destiny. It was the play which announced his arrival as a major new playwright. Yet the success of its fateful first production was hard-won and somewhat fortuitous.

The Glass Menagerie received its premiere in Chicago in December 1944. Williams was already in his thirties and his one previous play had been a resounding flop. Initially, the omens for Menagerie were far from promising.

Advance bookings were meagre. The role of Amanda was being played by faded star Laurette Taylor who had a drink problem - on the day of the dress rehearsal she was found passed out in a drunken stupor in the theatre basement.

The play’s producers, and Williams himself, feared the worst for the play’s prospects, and yet on the opening night everything miraculously came together, especially Laurette Taylor who turned in an electrifying performance.

Her portrayal of Amanda would go down as one of the greatest performances in American theatre. Williams would later recall: “There was a radiance about her art which I can compare only to the greatest lines of poetry, and which gave me the same shock of revelation as if the air about us had been momentarily broken through by light from some clear space beyond us.”

The play’s success remained in the balance however as audiences were still not coming. What rescued it were the efforts of two local critics, Claudia Cassidy (nicknamed “Acidy Cassidy” due to her acerbic reviews ) and Ashton Stevens.

Both loved The Glass Menagerie and repeatedly exhorted their readers to go and see it. Cassidy’s initial review declared that Menagerie was “a dream in the dust and a tough little play that knows people and how they tick. Etched in the shadows of a man’s memory, it comes alive in theatre terms of words, motion, lighting, and music. If it is your play, as it is mine, it reaches out tentacles, first tentative, then gripping and you are caught in its spell.”

Thanks to Cassidy and Stevens’ efforts, audiences picked up and soon Menagerie was playing to full houses. In March it transferred to Broadway where its opening night was greeted with an amazing 25 curtain calls. It also went on to win the New York Critic’s Circle Award. Tennessee Williams had finally arrived.

I didn’t go to the moon, I went much further

This new production of William’s enduring classic is directed by Max Hafler.

“It’s a play I’ve always wanted to do,” he declares during a break in rehearsals. “I’ve loved it for a very long time, ever since I was 17 when I did some scenes from it as a student actor – it’s a play I use a lot for teaching purposes as well.

“I love that it’s about this dysfunctional family who are very fragile and yet they also have a great strength. I also love the fact that it’s a memory play which means you can be quite adventurous with the staging and that’s something I really like to do.

“The two planks of the production, the things that really intrigued me, besides the fact that there is a family where there is a readily identifiable problem, ie, Laura, in actual fact it’s the dynamic of the entire family that is the problem.

“Also, something I feel that’s very important, especially in this day and age and what’s happening in Ireland is they’re really struggling to survive. If they had more money a lot of the problems they actually face would not be as critical as they actually are. I think a lot of people nowadays can relate to that.”

Hafler goes on to reflect on the key role of memory in the play.

“It’s interesting too how Tennessee Williams looks at the whole issue of memory. He really looks at how and why we remember things. Every character in the story has a memory which is carrying them through the tough times. Then you start wondering ‘is that memory true, is that really what happened?’ For instance people say Amanda couldn’t have experienced the Deep South the way she describes it because it was already a time gone by.

“The play brings up all kinds of questions about the way we remember things and what we remember them for. Then there’s that tension between how Tom remembers things and his actual response to the event, so he has two stories. As his older self he’s wondering ‘Can I ever let this go’ and as a younger person it’s ‘I’ve got to escape from this terrible situation’.”

While Laura is shy and crippled and Amanda seems lost in dreams of the past, Hafler points out that both women also possess reservoirs of personal strength.

“Laura is one of the strongest characters in the play in a way,” he notes. “She puts up a lot of resistance, she never apologises to her mother ever, she is both very vulnerable and very strong. I think Amanda is also tougher than she’s given credit for; she’s a single parent who, when there was no welfare to speak of and probably with very little support from her family, she’s had to bring up these children virtually single handed.”

Hafler’s excellent cast for The Glass Menagerie features Abbey Theatre stalwart Maria McDermottroe in the central role of Amanda. The cast also includes Marcus Lamb, Sean Ó Meallaigh and Ionia Ní Chroinín while design is by Mary Doyle.

Booking is now open at the Town Hall Theatre on 091-569777 or on the web at www.tht.ie

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