A Menagerie of Performances Combining to an Ultimately Satisfying Whole
The term menagerie has two meanings. For the purposes of Tennessee Williams’ play, the conventional interpretation of a collection of captive animals is the intent of the term. However, there’s an alternative meaning where menagerie can be used to describe a strange or diverse collection of people or things. And that’s the definition that best sums up the Grand Theatre’s production of The Glass Menagerie—a collection of divergent performances and experiences, which manage to coalesce, thanks to an outstanding second act, into an ultimately satisfying performance.
From two pairings of actors interacting in two vastly different styles, to one actor having two styles of delivery based on his role (with one being far more engaging and effective), to two vastly different acts directed to varying degrees of success, The Glass Menagerie combines these divergent performances into a satisfying whole.
Fortunately, The Glass Menagerie builds momentum throughout the play and, propelled by the interaction of Amy Keating’s Laura Wingfield and the arrival of Alexander Crowther’s Jim O’Connor, the production finds its equilibrium and heart. Unfortunately, the first act was akin to a beautiful frame displaying an unbalanced piece of art—a visually stunning frame (in this case, an enchantingly intimate stage) displaying a collection of wildly divergent strokes, with colours too vibrant in some areas and too neutral in others.
The first act was an exhausting exercise in hyperbolic performance, particularly between Sarah Orenstein’s Amanda, affecting a relatively successful southern accent that was betrayed partly by repetitiveness in cadence, and Stephen Jackman-Torkoff’s Tom, Amanda’s son and the narrator of the play. Both enthusiastically deliver their lines with a certain ferocity that continues unabated, for the most part. There was little in the way of modulation or emotional range in the first act—a fact amplified by the cozy confines of McManus and the fact that the play was set up in the round. This type of vocal presentation may work in a larger venue, but only served to betray the intimate benefits that the venue offered.
The opportunity lost by the decision to present the lines at such a volume was amplified in the second act, when we see Orenstein, deep in reverie, deliver a touching, heartfelt recounting of a time forever lost as she recounted her southern upbringing and cotillion-fuelled past.
Jackman-Torkoff also gave glimpses of that emotional depth and attachment, not as Tom, but rather when he breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience in his role as a narrator. Immediately, he connects with the viewers, and displays a humanness and engagement that’s absent in the largely one-note performance as Tom.
Whether by accident or by design, the hyperbolic performances allow Keating’s economy of performance and subtlety of gestures as Laura to shine through. As mother and son consume much of the play’s oxygen, one is transfixed by Keating’s simple, gentle caress of a glass animal, or her wordless movement to the back of the room. Keating’s tranquility is both refreshing and engaging.
The second act is far more successful, largely due to the interaction of Keating and Alexander Crowther, in the role of Jim. Bathed only in candlelight (augmented with a slight bit of assistance from gently applied overhead lighting) the two engage in a touching discussion of dreams, self-worth, and value—a emotional crescendo that makes the resulting climactic moment all the more heart-wrenching. During this scene, both actors are able to convey moments of passion and excitement, which are amplified by the presence of quieter, more serene elements of speech—and absence of speech. They allow the story and Williams’ masterful banter to shine through without being drowned out by constant volume.
Though the statute of limitations on spoilers should probably cap out before 70 years, I will refrain from sharing too much of the story, other than to say there’s a reason why this is an American classic. The dialogue is outstanding and the introspective look at the nature of human desire, selfishness, responsibility, and dreams remains poignant to this day.
Physically, the play is extremely well done. The set, simple as it may be, accurately portrays the period it represents. From the Victrola to the vintage telephone to the manual typewriter on tables, surrounding a simple chaise lounge in the centre of the stage, everything feels right. Performed in the round, the audience surrounds the performers and, despite not always being used to maximum effectiveness, allows for an increased sense of intimacy. And the use of light, from the two purple-hued interlocking circles above the stage to the warm glow emanating from the glass menagerie itself, all create a sense of ambiance and intimacy that helps draw the viewers into the show.
Overall, The Glass Menagerie is a faithful reproduction of Williams’ classic and well worth seeing. Solid to strong performances all around overshadow any of the challenges or opportunities lost through unmodulated vocal projection. And the second act alone, especial Keating and Crowther’s interaction, is worth the price of admission.