'Glass Menagerie' even better than day at the zoo
By Nikolai Slywka
My friend and I couldn't repress a few snickers early in the second act of
The Yale Repertory Theater's production of The Glass Menagerie. The
first act had been unnervingly long and filled with acting that seemed to
intentionally avoid finesse. The cast members seemed unwilling to deliver their
lines in tones that weren't either lifelessly flat, blandly glib, or shrill and
COURTESY YALE REPERTORY THEATER
Laura and her gentleman caller are sharing a moment...shhhhh.
Too often they seemed to be acting for the sake of acting. The production
seemed both moribund and smug; it was as if
it had resigned itself to the
notion that attempts at creating a durable fiction on the stage can only be
naive and sentimental and that the best theater can do is draw attention to its
own theatricality. And so my friend and I couldn't help expressing some
distress and disappointment when in the beginning of act two, the hollow,
portentous delivery of the on-stage narrator (Wayne Maugans) seemed to signal a
continuation of the first act's apparent weaknesses.
By the end of the night it was clear that our initial reaction had been
misguided. This fascinating, challenging play, directed by the multiple Obie
Award-winner Joseph Chaikin, uses the gambit of a slow first act and at times
insipid or overwrought performances in order to force the audience to distrust
what it's seeing and to question the nature of the social roles the characters
inhabit. This production isn't concerned with exposing the artifice of the
theater, but with showing how deeply and destructively artifice and
role-playing are embedded within real conditions. In particular, it focuses on
how these dynamics operate within what have become two staples of American
culture: the free-spirited young man who rejects his domestic situation because
it seems to smother his poetic inclinations and the ambitious young narcissist
who self-absorbedly strives to fulfill his entrepreneurial inclinations.
The frustrated, young poet Tom doubles as the play's narrator. Tom works at a
warehouse to support his overbearing mother (Laura Esterman) and his eccentric,
crippled but mobile sister, Laura (Kali Rocha). In the evenings, he writes now
and then at his typewriter but seems more than anything to enjoy escaping from
his mother to movie theaters and bars. After a first act filled with quarreling
and the increasingly strident presentation of the mother as a cant-ridden,
manipulator of her children's emotions, the play moves
to the main event,
the appearance of entrepreneurial young Jim (Jay Snyder), a long-sought
"gentleman caller" for Laura.
The sim-ple plot of The Glass Menagerie is enriched by the distrust we
come to feel for Tom in his status as both narrator and character. This is
perhaps the most convenient position anyone could hope to find himself in; like
being both judge and plaintiff in one's own case, it's a situation ripe for
self-serving distortions of the truth and for false, but indisputable alibis
for treachery. By the end of the performance, we come to sense that what
appeared in the play's first half as an unduly exaggerated and over-acted
presentation of an oppressive mother may be a result of Tom's selective and
flattering construction of his past. The play then seems not so much to be
about a sensitive, romantic son victimized by a nasty mother, as it is about
the mean-spirited and ultimately poorly-wrought fabrications of a mediocre
artist seeking to render his family in as poor a light as possible to excuse
himself for his weaknesses.
Complicating Tom's position as both narrator and character is his claim in the
first scene that "the play is memory." The simplicity of this formulation veils
what the play eventually confirms to be the confounding complexity and
slipperiness of memory. Even in the seemingly all-controlling position as the
narrator of a slice of his own remembered history, Tom cannot conceal how
cheaply he behaves when, at the play's end, he betrays his mother and sister.
Although he doesn't have the self-awareness or strength to admit it, his poetic
imagination is a selfish, tawdry mixture of Hollywood myths and puerile
fantasies of adventure.
In the beautifully acted and staged after-dinner scene that comprises most of
the performance's second half, Jim initially stands as the play's simplest,
most familiar, and likable character. His exuberance about his ambitions, his
guileless infatuation with Laura, his sincere fascination with the glass
collection referred to in the play's title, all work to earn our affection. But
like Tom, he eventually reveals himself to be selfish and self-absorbed, and he
too comes to betray both Laura and her mother. In inviting and then disrupting
our sympathy for Jim and Tom, the play complicates without entirely disparaging
the American figures of the yearning, free-spirited poet and the striving young
business man. Both cultural roles seem to foster and even sanction a disruption
of domestic affections.
Although we were quite wrong in our early reactions to the play, my friend and
I had enough good sense to appreciate from the start this production's
brilliant set. Scenic designer Alexander Dodge wraps the stage within a huge
rose whose interior faces the audience. In its monstrous scale, it undermines
the rose's typical association with beauty and affection and conveys the
oppressiveness that Tom contrives to locate in the domestic and feminine world.
This grotesquely exaggerated and threatening rose has its compliment in Laura's
beloved collection of beautiful but all-too vulnerable glass figurines.
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