The Guthrie’s production of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” begins with the strike of a match. The narrator, Tom Wingfield (Remy Auberjonois) lights a cigarette atop a fireplace. He tells the audience, “Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you an illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”
This is the crux of the story, presented as Tom’s reminiscence of his mother and sister. He assures us right away that because the play is his memory come to life, like memory, it is not always entirely factual, and is often “sentimental, not realistic.” The minimalist, dimly lit set, designed by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams and Christopher Akerlind, serves this message well. Though Tom admits his own unreliability here, he also reminds the audience of why we came in the first place. Truth disguised as illusion describes live theater: through the process of playing pretend, it seeks to reveal fundamental truths about the human condition.
“The Glass Menagerie” is considered a landmark piece, both because it launched Williams’ career and because it was the first “memory play,” a genre which has since been adopted by numerous playwrights and filmmakers. Since its premiere on Broadway in 1945, it has been revived more times than any other play in the last 70 years. This is the Guthrie’s fifth production.
Set in a 1937 apartment in St. Louis, the story follows Tom, his mother Amanda (Jennifer Van Dyck) and his sister Laura (Carey Cox), each of whom are desperately clinging to their own illusions and struggle to face the brutal, empty reality of American society in the thirties. Amanda, who was left by her husband (“a telephone man who fell in love with long distance,” as they cleverly deem him) spends much of her time passionately remembering her days as a Southern debutante and her many romantic exploits. Tom wrestles with the opposite dilemma: attempting to permanently shed the skin of the past. Wearied by his monotonous day job as a shoe salesman and the burden of caring for his family, he regularly goes to the movies in an effort to quench his thirst for “adventure.”
Laura, who has a limp leftover from a childhood bout with polio, is painfully shy, with almost no self-confidence, and so she occupies her days with a set of glass animals, hence the title. Cox, who also understudied the role on Broadway, has a disability, a genetic connective tissue disorder called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. In an interview with the Star Tribune, Cox emphasized the necessity of actors with disabilities playing characters with disabilities, noting that it adds a vital degree of authenticity. The intentional casting of Cox sets this production apart from the myriad of others that have been done over the years.
The tension begins to heighten when Amanda discovers Laura has been skipping her typing classes to go on excursions to the zoo. Furious, her mother asks “you did all this to deceive me?” One cannot help but notice the hypocrisy in Amanda’s outrage, for she is just as trapped in the constraints of illusion as Laura is. Whenever she relives the bygone days of her youth, her joy is palpable: she is compelling, animated, beaming with the remnants of faded thrill, all of which is conveyed excellently by Van Dyck, who has a mesmerizing type of exuberance. Laura, when playing with her glass animals, takes part in a similar form of pleasure, although Carey Cox’s portrayal is tinged with a sweetness and fragility that contrasts nicely with Van Dyck’s wild bliss. Cox has one of her finest moments when she relishes in the memory of Jim, her high school crush, and enters the same dreamlike state as Amanda. For all her steadfastness, Amanda fails to notice that she and her daughter are both unable to see beyond their own fantasies.
In a Guthrie promotional video, director Joseph Haj noted that “the characters love each other very, very much… which is not quite the same thing as taking good care of one another.” Indeed, Amanda, in her determination to find happiness for her children, is convinced she knows what is best for them, even though she is too blinded by her own flaws to truly help them. This well-intentioned concern is universally relatable, which makes Amanda endearing.
As the audience, we are on her side, and can sympathize with her even when she is obnoxious and nitpicky, even when she violently hurls criticism at Tom for his eating habits (“chew your food and give your salivary glands a chance to function!” she demands of him at one point). Tom, for his part, is delightful to watch onstage, since Auberjonois imbues him with a brittle humor, the type of scathing wit usually seen in characters who are at the very end of their rope and cannot resist poking fun at themselves. (The morning after a night of drinking, when his mother instructs him to “rise and shine!” he grumbles, “I’ll rise, but I won’t shine.”)
Eventually, Tom announces that he is bringing home a “gentleman caller” (Grayson DeJeus), for Laura, a friend from his work. Of course, Amanda jumps into a frenzy and prepares a fancy dinner. Once the man in question arrives, brimming with charisma, it is revealed that he is the very same Jim that Laura was in love with years before. After dinner, Jim persuades her to dance, beginning one of the play’s most famous scenes. Laura confesses the humiliation she experienced in school because of her limp, but Jim assures her that he hardly noticed it, and claims there is nothing wrong with her besides an inferiority complex.
Jim seems to be the only character who is not stuck in either the past or the future but is content to live in the present, and perhaps that is exactly what Laura needs in order to fully see herself. It comes out that Jim has a fiancee and was never romantically interested in Laura, but that only makes his kindness towards her all the more touching. His heart is pure enough that he is willing to give her the gift of this tender waltz.
It can be difficult for scenes as iconic as this one to retain their spirit after they have been performed so many times, but the Guthrie manages to put an impressively vibrant spin on the sequence. It is a lovely showcase of the chemistry between DeJesus and Cox as they glide around the candelabra that rests on the carpet.
After Jim leaves, Tom, in a plea to leave his past behind for good, tells Laura to blow out the candles. She inhales, but then hesitates for a few seconds, allowing us to indulge in that rare thing that sometimes happens with live theater: an actress holding the audience’s attention in the palm of her hand. We are allowed to savor the pleasure of this alternate plane of hazy memory for a final moment while Laura’s face is awash in golden candlelight, before she exhales and the stage goes dark, ending our brief venture into the realm of illusions.
“The Glass Menagerie” is playing at the Guthrie’s Wurtele Thrust Stage in Minneapolis until October 27, with student tickets starting at $25. The run time is approximately two hours and twenty five minutes, including an intermission.