By Frances Marion Givhan
Tennessee Williams owns a fraction of the hearts of Sewanee theatre students. Living, breathing, and working in a place which bears his name allows the sentimental attachment to the playwright to seep into the subconscious, emerging at unexpected moments of loyalty and awe at his work. With this perspective, watching John Tiffany’s interpretation of The Glass Menagerie in London at the Duke of York’s Theatre caused the part of my mind to ache with a longing to experience the show with others who feel like-minded. It was a piece of home transported into a foreign city, and a delight for this current expatriate.
The set and costumes were simple, ideal echoes of the period of which the play paints a picture. Will Burton-Edwards (C’18) said upon seeing the stage, “everything looked as if it would have been nice 20 years ago.” From the couch and dining table, central places for the play’s action, to little details such as the rug and fire escape balcony, the set designer did not make a fuss. Almost everything had its purpose, except the fire escape, which defied the perspective of the apartment and climbed its way toward the ceiling of the stage. If the actors had use of it, it might have worked as a curious element, but it ended up sticking out rather than blending in.
Each actor delivered an incredible performance of the idiosyncrasies of their characters, Tom acting as the most compelling performance while Jim the most natural. Michael Esper, who appeared in David Bowie’s Lazarus in New York City and London, played an adventurous, self destructive, emotional Tom who wanted nothing more than to escape the overbearing, controlling nature of his mother Amanda (played by Cherry Jones). Esper’s physicality suited the role, with loose and imprecise movements that seemed to combat the restrictive nature of Tom’s life. Tom opens the production, and Esper took that responsibility seriously. By the end, when he cried remembering Laura, one could not look away.
The dynamic between the family members rang too true in this interpretation of the show. Jones’s Amanda hovered over her children with suffocating effects, but everything she did came from a deeply rooted motivation to make her children succeed in their lives. If anyone wanted the life they had been given the least, it was Amanda, and she was willing to stoop to low levels to ensure her children did not have to feel the same. While her accent felt strained and her words sounded choked in her throat, Jones played an equally sweet but horrifying mother, who could tease with her children and drive them away all in one breath.
Laura, played by Brit Kate O’Flynn, and Tom in particular had a beautiful sibling relationship that carried the show. The two shared many intimate moments that gave extra, necessary life to the show. While Amanda monologues about receiving 17 gentlemen callers in her youth, Tom and Laura smile at each other from across the dining room table and poke fun at their mother by mouthing her words. Goodness knows she had told them the story a thousand times before. They also cared for each other, providing bittersweet moments of vulnerability. After Laura faints in front of the gentleman caller, Tom guides her to the couch, and, with her head still down, Laura pulls him back to sit with her. The forlorn expression on his face as he gently perches in the spot next to her breaks one’s heart.
Out of the four cast members, though, Brian J. Smith interpreted the role of Jim (the “gentleman caller”) with unique life. While Esper could not nail the Southern accent and Jones sounded strained, Smith, a Texas native, had an easy accent and perfect charm. He gave a comforting presence to the stage, and one felt it was easy to trust him, which made Laura’s predicament all the more painful. Jim had a fine balance between confidence and vulnerability. One moment, his lines echoed with a strong belief in his abilities, then the next ones would leave one’s soul feeling weak and helpless.
Smith played Jim so well that it felt impossible not to want to wring his neck for how he obviously (whether intentionally or unintentionally) flirted with, encouraged, and kissed Laura. O’Flynn’s Laura handled the truth of Jim’s engagement in a way that broke the audience. She stayed stuck in the position in which he had pulled away after the kiss, listening to him with what appeared to be complete understanding. Only when she returned to her glass menagerie did the mechanical smile fall away from her face, replaced by pure, heart-wrenching rejection.
Other elements of the show also deserve applause, such as the precise and creative lighting of the show, designed by Tony Award-winner Natasha Katz. A blue tinted light seemed to follow Tom wherever he went, a clever tool to distinguish the cloud over his head from the warm light of the apartment. The lighting was subtle enough that changes went practically unnoticed. In one scene, Tom lights a match while Amanda babbles on, and he slowly drifts the match away from the dining table. The precision of the dimming lights and shifting mood happened so gradually that one wondered if the stage had always been lit that way.
Tiffany’s The Glass Menagerie resonates with the mystical magic of memories and hits the tragedy of the Wingfield family at every moment, whether funny or shattering. The ensemble matched each other’s energies, never letting a moment lull in between the classically hard-hitting scenes. The show, even with its minor flaws, was beautiful. It carries on the legend of Tennessee Williams from its Broadway run to the London stages.
- “It was a piece of home transported into a foreign city, and a delight for this current expatriate.”
- “Smith played Jim so well that it felt impossible not to want to wring his neck for how he obviously (whether intentionally or unintentionally) flirted with, encouraged, and kissed Laura.”