The Glass Menagerie at the Guthrie Theater
What is possibly one of the most important plays in American theater canon, The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams has officially opened for the fifth time at the Guthrie Theater. This memory play, that opened on Broadway back in 1945, was an instant success and later went on to hold the title of the most revived play on Broadway in the last 70 years.
I have a long history with this show as I studied it immensely for a theatre design class I took in college as well as an auditioning course the following semester. Then that summer I interned with the Great River Shakespeare Festival as they produced it that season. Needless to say, I was sort of sick of it and it never cared to see it again. That being said, this breathtaking production directed by Artistic Director Joseph Haj, has restored my curiosity and love for this intricate play.
The Glass Menagerie is a memory play that has the story being told by the Narrator, Tom. It explores the family dynamics between him and his mother, Amanda along with his sister Laura. Each character is dealing with and living within their own disappointment as they live in a cramped St. Louis apartment, trying to coexist with each other. While Amanda is an overbearing mother who deep down just wants the best for her children, she eventually drives Tom away which is where the story begins. As Tom narrates his final days at home, we see one final evening with the Wingfields and how an unexpected turn of events involving dinner and a gentleman caller leads the family into turmoil.
Often there are plays that don’t need to be reinvented in terms of the set and The Glass Menagerie is one of them. Scenic Designer Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams does just that with a simple living room and dining room set up for the Wingfields small apartment. With a desk for Tom, a dining table for the family and a spot for Laura’s record player, it’s simple and effective. The ongoing fire escape that Tom starts his monologue on goes all the way up to the top of the stage, almost like a pathway into other memories he holds.
What I truly appreciated, and quite honestly think is one of the stars of the production, was the brilliant lighting design by Christopher Akerlind. Above all the actors are what looks to be at least a hundred edison bulbs hanging over them. To me, the cluster of bulbs were the brain of the production, Tom’s brain specifically. As Tom recalls various moments of his life, different clusters of them would light up, sometimes brighter than other scenes and sometimes more dim, similar to synapses of the brain. It was truly enchanting to see.
The cast is tight and listens to each other well which helps push the plot along at a good pace, despite being a long script. Typically when I’ve seen The Glass Menagerie, a much younger actor portrays Tom as his memories are in the past. The Guthrie does a different approach and casts the older Remy Auberjonois in the role which is honestly more appropriate in my opinion. While Auberjonois balances the relationship with his mother, both reflecting the good and the bad, I couldn’t help but feel like he was at a 10 in terms of emotion. There wasn’t much of a climax or room for growth in terms of his annoyance towards Amanda.
The gentleman caller in the second half of the show is played by Grayson DeJesus. DeJesus was cast perfectly in this role with his undeniably sweet and charming approach. I honestly think I fell in love with him on stage - is that weird? Nope, just great acting I’d say. He’s charisma shines in his scenes with Amanda and he is gentle and endearing with Laura, who is played by Carey Cox. DeJesus and Cox both have an electrically yet soothing chemistry together. Cox gives a masterclass worthy performance as she can convey so many emotions with just a look. Their scene together made me truly believe that this time it would be different and they’d run away together.
Amanda Wingfield, or the Mama Rose of American plays, is a role that nearly every professional theatre actress hopes to play in their lifetime. When is the appropriate time to play her? She’s three-dimensional and extremely complex as she walks the line of overbearing and loving. That being said, it was Jennifer Van Dyck’s time to play her as she gave a tour de force performance as Amanda. While many scenes in The Glass Menagerie can be viewed as slightly tragic or uncomfortable, Van Dyck brings a sense of humor to this play that is rooted in realism. I honestly couldn’t take my eyes off of her.
The Glass Menagerie is nearly 75 years old and it’s still being performed to this day. It’s raw human connection to family is a theme that will always be relevant. The Guthrie’s production of this American classic is an indication that there are still new things to be discovered about it and it is certainly not going anywhere anytime soon.
The Glass Menagerie plays at the Guthrie Theater now through Oct. 27.
*Photos by T. Charles Erickson