As with KING LEAR, I have seen many productions of Tennessee Williams's THE GLASS MENAGERIE and have directed the play myself. Only one production captured the play as I understand it -- a production at the Hippodrome Theatre in Gainesville, Florida. Usually the Amanda is too old to have children in their early twenties and, to compensate, the children have to be older than their stated age in the script. Jessica Tandy played Amanda in her eighties --- she would have been Tom and Laura's grandmother but not their mother. The same miscasting often occurs with Blanche in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE who is supposed to be thirtyish, not middle aged. Often, too, the focus is placed too much on Amanda and Laura when the relationship between Tom and Amanda is equally important. It is Tom's memories we are watching, after all.
The current production, directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins at the Young Vic has its flaws, but the fascinating, near over-the-top performance by Leo Bill as Tom makes it worth seeing. The program reminds us that Tom Williams, not yet named Tennessee Williams, had a nervous breakdown while working at the International Shoe Company and living at home with his garrulous mother and mentally disturbed sister. Leo Bill's Tom is at the breaking point. He is all nervous energy, frustration and entrapment. When his mother cries, "I don't believe you go to the movies," he backs against the wall as if harboring a guilty secret (homosexuality?). This young man has to get out of this apartment and away from his chatterbox of a mother or lose his mind. To some extent, Bill's performance throws the play a bit off balance, but it is perfectly valid and fascinating to watch, particularly for someone who knows the play well. The Brits next to me thought he was too manic, but I think he justifies the production. Bill is an actor willing to take great risks.
Deborah Findlay, an actress I usually like from stage and television roles, is a bit disappointing as Amanda. Perhaps it is the awful southern accent, but I never quite believed her (I must say that in general the dialects were all over the place. Bill's Tom was New York, Jim was midwest -- well, it is St. Louis -- and Laura nineteen-thirties Hollywood. Btitish actors are usually better with American dialects these days -- they certainly seem to be getting lots of leading roles on American tv with their Hugh Laurie midwestern accents. I don't demand accuracy, but consistency would be nice). Great Amandas combine desperation with humor. Like all Tennessee Williams's heroines, Amanda is funny, sad and irritating all at once. Somehow Findlay was too earthy to capture Amanda. She has clearly never met a southern steel magnolia. I have lived in the south for decades now and have met many Amandas. They're a dying breed now, but once ruled the roost in every church and cultural organization. Sinead Mathews was perfectly acceptable as Laura, a bit too pretty and with a strange, throaty voice. I didn't see that brief blossoming of a wallflower and deflation when her dream, after briefly coming true, is dashed. Kyle Soller is equally OK. I missed that sense of a young man for whom high school was always going to be his finest hour and he knows it. He basks in Laura's fond memories of him, but the future doesn't look too bright. Which is to say that 90 per cent of the pathos and the humor in this production came from Leo Bill's Tom.
The staging, pacing and music are fine. Hill-Gibbins used the odd Young Vic space effectively. The audience sits on two sides of a corner stage, but the production uses a curtain which sometimes rises from the floor and sometimes descends from above to give a sense of the illusion Tom speaks of in his prologue. This wasn't a revelatory production but I'm glad I went.
THE GLASS MENAGERIE by Tennessee Williams. Young Vic Theatre. January 13, 2011.