27 April 2001: Williams, The Glass Menagerie

Hartford Stage. Directed by Michael Wilson. Elizabeth Ashley as Amanda, Anne Dudek as Laura, Andrew McCarthy as Tom, and Willis Sparks as the Gentleman Caller

Michael Wilson sees Williams as a more robust playwright than do most directors who take on this play. It’s still a memory play, narrated by Tom, who like his father before him has fallen in love with long distances, but it doesn’t have the dreamy feel I associate with the play, probably from seeing Jo Mielziner’s atmospheric scene designs. Ashley is a very creditable and credible smothering mother, but a more assertive one, less deeply wounded, more stalwart than many Amandas I have seen. Anne Dudek is a truly wonderful Laura, utterly convincing in her terrible morbid shyness, plain-faced and flat chested, tall and gawky — and equally convincing when she is quickly brought to life by the self-flattering attentions of Jim. Oh, but she comes alive, exuding a newly awakened sexual vitality even before the kiss. It’s a real kiss; it lasts a good fifteen seconds (a long time on stage), and we suddenly can estimate clearly the great good it would do this pretty woman — no more plainness now — to fall in love. The disappointment she suffers when Jim, the self-accused “stumble-john,” let’s it out that he is engaged. The loss is nearly palpable, and the gift of the hornless unicorn is both touching and bitter for her.

Andrew McCarthy’s Tom is a foil to them all. His voice is a bit high-pitched and grating, a shade nasal and irritating. I think we are not meant to like him very much. In fact, I see now that every director must make a choice about Tom: sympathetic or antipathetic? Can we forgive him for abandoning his sister and mother, or not? Is this a play about the imperious claims of art, or a play about love and happiness thwarted and lost? No forgiveness here, I think — whatever Williams seems to have had in mind, no matter. The truest word Tom speaks in this play is to Jim, as they stand on the fire escape before dinner and Tom shows him his newly acquired merchant seaman’s union card. Jim asks him what will happen to his mother and sister if he leaves? Tom says he doesn’t know; he won’t be here to find out. Putting that scene at the start of the dinner is Williams’s way of letting us know that doom is just around the corner, and Tom is its agent.

Not a pretty picture of human motives. Wilson just lets that happen, straightforwardly. A statement; take it for what it’s worth. We do. And then we forget all about it, for a while, as the magic of that scene between Jim O’Connor and Laura steals our hearts. Tom is off stage for all of that, but his omniscient retrospection brings it back for us nonetheless. And the ending, in which Tom admits that he has not been able to forget his sister as he thought he would, rings true. It is a bleak moment, quickly consummated, in which Tom instructs Laura to blow out her candles — to extinguish the image of Tom’s guilt, the image of fragility and loss.

Willis Sparks’s Jim is as red-blooded and banal as they come, but immensely appealing all the same. There is a naïveté at once comic and touching in his belief in the prospects of the self-made American man. Executive suites are full of men like this, graduates of the school of hard knocks, immensely capable and utterly devoid of self-knowledge. Jim is the Stanley Kowalski of this play: the seed-bearer, if not nearly so gaudy as Stanley, and the inadvertent spoiler; a charming fellow, quite innocent of culture, who worries a little that the guys at the warehouse will tease him and call him “Romeo” if they find out he’s engaged, but who sees nothing condescending in calling Tom “Shakespeare.” There is a chasm a hundred miles wide between these two young men. Williams delineates it perfectly. On this side of it is the Wingfield apartment, permanently cut off from mainstream success; the Bitch Goddess never makes it down this St. Louis alley. These people are strange, as strange as blue roses — a brilliant invention of Williams’s that somehow says it all. Roses aren’t supposed to be blue. And even this, given his instinct for flight, is intolerable to Tom: Williams’s signature character, the “fugitive kind,” restless to the depths of his soul. We see that from our vantage point, safe and sound on the other side of the footlights. We are all in some sense Gentlemen Callers, and Jim O’Connor is our surrogate, though the play makes us a little ashamed to admit it.

That’s how the rhetoric of the play works. We are invited to dinner from our warehouse, and it’s a pleasant way to while away an evening while our fiancée is out of town. The test is, finally, whether we feel as guilty as Tom does for keeping, despite ourselves, the image of the doomed Wingfield family in our heads, and hearts, as we return to Philistine City.



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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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