Sunday, July 10, 2011

Polished to a Shine: The Glass Menagerie at Soulpepper Theatre Company in Toronto

Nancy Palk & Gemma James-Smith in The Glass Menagerie.

Tennessee Williams called his semi-autobiographical 1944 play, The Glass Menagerie, a memory play, using it to travel back in time to when he was growing up in the American South, a would-be writer with a paranoid-schizophrenic older sister whom his parents had institutionally lobotomized, and for which he never forgave them.

That sounds like the stuff of tragedy. But when writing his first and most famous play, Williams made it as varied and prismatic as the fragile figurines immortalized in the title, qualities polished to a shine by a new and brilliant production of The Glass Menagerie that Soulpepper Theatre Company (the critically acclaimed company that is beginning to receive justifiable international acclaim) is presenting in rep at Toronto’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts through to September. Far from being a one-note drama full of sadness, this play about the fictional Wingfield family is lightened and brightened by laughter and the big, bold dreams of matriarch Amanda, the glue holding her fragile family together.

Director Ted Dykstra (co-writer and star of the acclaimed play, 2 Pianos, 4 Hands) must be credited for drawing out the complexities in a play that is often presented simply as a study in disappointment, with Amanda typically seen as delusional and not as the dreamer she is here portrayed by Soulpepper founding member Nancy Palk, a truly gifted Canadian actress who graces the role with nuance and huge dollops of empathy.

You need only think back to the 1950 film version to know that productions of The Glass Menagerie tend to be overbearing, forgoing the lyricism and humour that really are the playwright’s abiding strengths. In the film, Amanda was played by a hysterical Gertrude Lawrence, an actress Williams himself decried as being all wrong for the part, eventually publicly calling her casting “a dismal error,” and the film itself “a dishonest” reading of his work.

Williams is long dead and so can’t comment on what Dykstra has done. But there’s little doubt he’d be pleased. Dykstra ably captures the heart of the play, drawing out glimmering psychological detail through character portraits that read larger-than-life. The casting here is pitch-perfect: Gemma James-Smith as the emotionally and physically crippled Laura, the withdrawn sister in the play with only a glass unicorn, faithful companion of virgins, to call as friend; Jeff Lillico as the garrulous gentleman caller, a high school star clinging desperately to youthful bravado even as he is about to take on more adult responsibilities; and Stuart Hughes as Tom, the narrator who is also Williams’ double in the play, the frustrated writer employed by the warehouse but leading a double-life after-hours in the dark corners of his own imagination. He is the poet in the play, the authorized spinner of lies, although everyone around him lies to some degree, too. All played their respective roles with expressionistic colouring, which is just as Williams had originally portrayed them on the page, characters both inspired and imprisoned by dreams whether of greatness past (the gentleman caller), greatness to come (Tom), or the greatness of intimacy as imagined in translucent pieces of glass (Laura).

While the play is very much an ensemble effort that includes Patrick Clark’s vintage 1940s set and costume design, Lorenzo Savoini’s elegiac lighting design (including dream-inducing candlelight) and Dykstra’s own soft and gentle musical composition, a deliberate layering of melodramatic sound that Williams wrote into the body of the play – calling sentimental music the right partner of remembered illusion – it is Palk who is this production’s stand-out element. She fully inhabits Amanda, and turns all previous portrayals of this most vivid of mother characters entirely on their head. Dykstra directed this play, but Palk truly animates it, making us see Amanda perhaps not entirely as Williams might have had us see her when he has Tom (his doppelganger, right down to the suggested homosexual rendezvous with strangers in bars while he was allegedly at the movies) at one point in the play calling her an “ugly, babbling old witch.” Palk easily gives the lie to that line.

She brings Amanda alive, making her the mother that everyone in the audience could easily recognize if not relate to, a woman who deeply loves her children even as she smothers them with her ambitions and fears for the future. “I’ll tell you what I wished for on the moon,” she says while sitting out on the fire escape gazing at the St. Louis night sky with one of her offspring. “Success and happiness for my precious children. I wish for that whenever there’s a moon, and when there isn’t a moon, I wish for it too.” That’s not delusional; that’s a real sentiment universally shared by mothers all over the world. She harbours dreams, if not fantasies, of what she once was – a blushing Southern belle with plenty of gentleman callers. But Palk has her remembering her conquests flirtatiously if not coquettishly, with a wiggle in her walk even as she gazes longingly into the mirror, seeing herself as a fragment of what she had hoped for herself, abandoned by the man she eventually did marry and saddled with financial worries. And yet she soldiers on. She is ultimately optimistic. This lends her strength. It’s why the audience roots for her – even as her son is running away from her, driven out the door by her controlling ways. On opening night, the capacity crowd showered her with boisterous applause and a spontaneous standing ovation that brought Palk to tears. Brava. Williams would have been proud.

Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. She is also the author of the national best-selling memoir, Paris Times Eight (Greystone Books/Douglas & McIntyre). Visit her website for more information, On the afternoon of Sunday, July 31, 2011, Deirdre will conduct a reading and signing of her book, Paris Times Eight, at J'Adorn in Kincardine, Ontario (791 Queen Street). Call the store at (519) 396-4438 for more information. Or visit their website at

No comments:

Post a Comment