The Glass Menagerie, arguably Tennessee Williams’s most famous work, comes to Providence, RI, later this month in a new conception of the scripted drama. Produced twice before at Trinity Rep, in 1965 and 1991, this rendition of Williams’ play, directed by Brian Mertes, takes the classic memory play and transforms it into a piece which could more accurately be categorized a “dream play,” and at times, a nightmare—purposefully, of course.
The set, a far cry from Williams’s heavily stage-directed concept, is a barren square of carpet, surrounded by two pianos, a few chairs, and a bed suspended from the rafters of the Chace Theater. The curtains, specifically designed for this production, entail a veil that appears only during intermission, a sheer white cloth that billows behind a free-standing fan, and a set of vertical vinyl blinds reminiscent of a car wash. As the play unfolds, the set is flooded with detail: Tom Wingfield (Brian McEleney) spreads loofahs across the upstage area, Laura (Mia Ellis) pulls her glass playthings and moves them about the space, while Amanda (Anne Scurria) retrieves costume pieces from a free-hanging clothes rack behind the stage.
The lighting design (by Dan Scully) ranges from a house full of light—during the opening monologue, and at various points when Tom, as narrator, addresses the audience—to a blackout lit only by the three flames of a candelabra.
The set and lighting create the dreamlike state in which the production happens. Raindrops are projected onto the wall of the theatre. The bed, occupied by Tom and Amanda, floats in midair. Tables, candles, and chairs appear and disappear at will, and as needed by Tom in his description of memory.
Perhaps the most impressive detail adding to the “memory play” status of The Glass Menagerie is the music of the play. Phillip Roebuck, who also wrote the pieces for the production, walks around and throughout the stage, picking up instruments and playing them as the plot dictates. He sits at a piano, he picks up bells, he embodies Williams’s description of the “fiddle in the wings,” by actually escaping from the wings—which the theater in question lacks—and is inserted into the narrative, culminating in a fiddle solo at the end of the play, which is halted by Laura herself.
In an unusual casting choice, Mertes’s production imagines Tom as an older man, thereby delving further into the question of memory in the play. Brian McEleney delivers his role as a narrator charmingly, wittily, and fruitfully, engaging the house as the narrator of the play. It does require some extra suspension of disbelief from the audience when he enters the scene, playing his 20-something self. Mia Ellis performs a perfectly helpless Laura, doomed to the household in which she lives. (Side note: her voice is a gift to this performance, which Mertes uses to his advantage in certain dreamlike sequences.) Dennis Kozee (Jim O’Connor) portrays the archetype of the boy next door; he is endearing enough to win the sympathy of the audience, but almost too perfect to ever win them over completely.
Anne Scurria delivers the powerhouse performance of the play. As Amanda, she encompasses the naïveté and well-intentioned ploys of the hope-ridden mother, while still committing to the highs and lows. From laughing to weeping, Scurria expertly portrays Amanda, whether losing herself in the beauty of years past or in the horrifying reality of disappointment. (Also, she has the most convincing Southern accent of all the performers.)
The set, lighting, music, and performances combine to create a play centered on “flight and repression.” At times, the play lives up to this lofty idea: setpieces quite literally fly, music quivers in the background, and the Wingfield family is clearly a clan of escapists. Nevertheless, pieces of this production leave behind more questions than answers. Certain inclusions (the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner before the opening monologue, an ensemble-driven musical interlude of “Let’s All Go to the Movies”) were delightful to watch but left a confusing mark on the narrative of the play.
The production likewise emphasized plenty of subtext, particularly underlining Tom as either a mirror of Laura herself or, in fact, a gay man. With painted fingernails and toenails, applying makeup while addressing the audience, and finally dancing away the closing monologue under a faint pink light, the production highlights the femininity of the character, perhaps more than the text of the play itself does. While adding to the “flight and repression” ideas evident in the interpretation, the subtext did little to add to the play. At its close, in fact, it distracted from the reverence of the final monologue.
Certain symbolism used in the play crafted an interesting and clear picture of the text. For example, Laura’s limp was absent at first, then symbolized by an “X” across her right foot. Finally, she donned an actual brace on her calf for the second act. Similarly, the act of Tom rolling out a new carpet across the stage, with only his sister blocking it, emphasized the “in with the new, regardless of Laura’s wishes,” that the text implies.
Other symbolism was a bit more esoteric, including an upright piano’s doubling as a fire escape, or the equation of an inflatable unicorn with the pieces of Laura’s glass menagerie.
Overall, Mertes’s deconstruction of Williams’ classic is a strange take on a seminal text. The set, music, and lights are stripped of all subtlety, as every move and detail on stage is emphasized; clearly, this is a theatrical production. More of a dream play than a memory, certain sequences come straight out of fantasy (giant billowing curtains, a dining room suddenly appearing) while others evoke nightmarish qualities (Laura’s terror at approaching her gentleman caller). The cast delivers exceptional performances; their delivery is the most traditional aspect of the play by far. At times, however, the production veers from the narrative of the text, and, in deconstructing Williams’ work so much, constructs a confusing picture instead.
The play beckons more than one viewing, for various reasons: on the one hand, it delights the eye with its incredible aesthetic and dynamic performances. On the other, the production leaves the audience with a number of questions that the text itself does not raise.
Mertes’s The Glass Menagerie holds true to its namesake: a glimmering conglomeration of beautiful pieces, albeit broken in some parts.
The Glass Menagerie performs at various dates and times through March 29th at the Chace Theater of the Trinity Repertory Company at 201 Washington Street in downtown Providence. Tickets are available here. Each performance is followed by a question-and-answer session. Brown students get in free with ID!
Also, for those interested in seeing the play, or after the seeing the play, check out this blog to explore Mertes’s interpretation of Tom’s memory.