The Glass Menagerie

Te Whaea - The Garage, 11 Hutchison Rd, Newtown, Wellington

05/10/2006 - 07/10/2006

Circa Two, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

06/12/2006 - 16/12/2006

Production Details

By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Willem Wassenaar

A dark, haunting and ghostly experience, as we enter the mind of Tom Wingfield.

This Tennessee Williams masterpiece is directed by Willem Wassenaar as the major production for his MTA degree. Set in America’s Great Depression in which the disappointed and disillusioned middle class saw their dreams dissolve before its eyes, The Glass Menagerie is the most autobiographical piece of Tennessee Williams.

Protagonist Tom feels trapped by the duty he owes to his family – stuck in a dead end job, having to support his dependent, demanding single mother and his shy, crippled sister while at the same time wanting to be free to live his own life. The small Saint Louis apartment literally imprisons the past, present and future of the individual members of the Wingfield household. Can a gentleman caller set them free?

All the events in the play are presented from the point of view of Tom, reflecting on his decision to find in motion what was lost in space. This Glass Menagerie emphasizes the language of memory. The surreal and illogical nature of Tom’s memory distorts the past, making The Glass Menagerie an unconventional and dreamlike journey.

Tom Wingfield: Michael Whalley
Amanda Wingfield: Renee Sheridan
Laura Wingfield: Jess Robinson
Jim O'Connor: Rowan Bettjeman

Set & costume design: Laura Nicholls
Lighting design: Natala Gwiazdzinski
Sound design: Katie Fletcher
Production & stage management: Pat McIntosh
Lighting operator: Angela Borman
Sound operator: Pat McIntosh
Set construction: Haydn Turner & Derek Simpson
Set materials: Joe Derbyshire
Publicist: Brianne Kerr
Publicity design: Ed Watson
Publicity photos: Dan Williams

Theatre ,

Fresh, knowing, moving

Review by Mary Anne Bourke 11th Dec 2006

"For nowadays, the world is lit by lightning…" With these final words, Tom Wingfield walks, just as his father did, away from his mother and sister and into the world. This production allows the playwright’s vision to flash in all its cruel lucidity. 

An expressionistic style with a comic bent seems more faithful to Williams’ poetic drama than the more naturalistic productions I’ve seen. The set and costume design by Laura Nicholls refers to decades of modernist productions, but goes further into the psyche of Tom as unreliable narrator. Steeply raked white floorboards, twisted high and frayed at the edges, support the slant of his memory. On such a set it is difficult for all characters to move, not just the crippled Laura – but so it is in this household on the edge of hope.

Observing this difficulty of movement onstage is sometimes distracting, but the trade off is a frequent physical comedy that verges on slapstick, which is welcome given the morbidity of the theme.

In an inventive performance trick, family members ape and mimic behind each other’s backs, amplifying the cannibalistic co-dependence of their relationships. Michael Whalley, as Tom, really shines in these moments of capricious fire, when he shows he is his mother’s son as much as his absent father’s.

Jess Robinson is genuinely moving and memorable as the crippled Laura. Understated at all times, in postulant white, she seems as likely to move as the blanched furniture around her, but elicits a sympathy that, I would suggest, goes beyond the stage.

By contrast, Rowan Bettjeman is the picture of vitality when he finally appears as the ‘Gentleman Caller’, but his careful listening to others’ speeches enhances the likeability of the character, Jim O’Connor, as much as it does Bettjeman’s watchability as a performer.

But it is Renee Sheridan, as the definitive pushy mother, Amanda, who enjoys the powerhouse role here. Relishing the complexity of an indomitable woman who obstructs her children’s progress even as she pushes them onward, Sheridan plays Amanda as a show-girl manqué. Flashing her eyes, her legs and her lines at the audience, she raises laughs at will and sails on without missing a beat. My only complaint would be the speed of her delivery in an American drawl that renders chunks of it unintelligible. Surely a Southern belle, however excited by the idea of a ‘Gentleman Caller’, can afford to take her time and let us savour her ‘conversation’.

It is something special to be moved all over again by a modern classic. This fresh, knowing production did it for me, and I think that no matter how well you know this play, you will be taken in.


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Steel behind disguise of illusion

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 07th Oct 2006

What is startling about Willem Wassenaar’s excellent production of the over-familiar The Glass Menagerie is that he takes its opening lines spoken by the narrator Tom (alias Tennessee Williams) and uses them to jolt the viewer from expecting yet another semi-realistic and often highly sentimental production of this memory play.

Tom says that he is not a stage magician who gives us illusion that has the appearance of truth but he will instead give us truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion. The play is structured by Tom’s memories and is saturated with his turbulent emotions when as a young man he was trapped during the Depression working in a shoe factory and supporting his suffocating mother, Amanda, and his crippled, desperately shy sister, Laura.

The pleasant disguise of illusion is created with an all-white setting (Laura Nicholls) placed in the middle of the Garage’s vast space like an island surrounded by darkness in which the characters can be dimly seen hovering in Tom’s mind before they appear on his almost empty stage.

Props are kept to a minimum and the actors mime many of the household objects. Laura’s glass menagerie, kept hidden under the floorboards, is made up of only one or two tiny bits of glass. The absent father’s photo is just an empty frame.

But Tom’s memory is in charge of the production and on one or two occasions he physically manoeuvres his characters into positions he thinks more appropriate. In one extraordinary scene he has his mother and himself declaiming in mock heroic style on chairs like soapbox orators. Another time he has Laura saying Amanda’s lines in Amanda’s voice and in the final scene when Jim, the gentleman caller, is talking to Laura the two are being clearly controlled by Tom who is seen, like a theatre director, hovering at the side of the stage mouthing their words. All of which are far more effective than the use of the clumsy screen device of Williams’s original script.

The cast of four are all excellent. Renee Sheridan makes Amanda manipulative and vulnerable, crass and protective, funny and pathetic, while Jess Robinson never for a moment descends into sentimentality as Laura, and Rowan Bettjeman is perfect in looks and demeanour as the gentleman caller that Amanda desires for Laura. Michael Whalley makes an impressive if at times overly sombre Tom who reacts with barely controlled rage and embarrassment at his mother’s oft repeated stories of her Southern belle youth and her attempts to show that she is still sexually attractive.

This 1940s play has been carefully re-thought, revitalised, revamped and freed from the accretions of Tiffany lamps, claw-foot tables and other period bric-a-brac that have attached themselves to this supposedly charming play and revealed the steel behind Williams’s memory of his family life.


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Questions resonate in broken Glass

Review by John Smythe 06th Oct 2006

One of the many great things about this Willem Wassenaar-directed The Glass Menagerie is it’s not pre-judged. Which is not to say Tom, the narrator in whose mind the story unravels, is not judgemental. He is, very … but that was then.

What somehow comes through, to me at least, is that although he’s free of it all now, Tom is compelled to go back over the time leading up to his escape, because it remains unresolved. And while he is recalling the way it was – when he, a would-be poet, was stuck in a dead-end shoe factory job, the reluctant breadwinner for his abandoned mother, Amanda, and “crippled” sister, Laura – he’s beginning to re-evaluate his trapped animal behaviour.

The conventional wisdom is that this, Tennessee Williams’ first successful play (1945), is also his most autobiographical. If so, we must suppose that the real answer to where Tom goes every night has to do with his closet gayness: not even hinted at but entirely possible as the play unfolds. But that’s by-the-bye.

This is Wassenaar’s major production in completing his Master of Theatre Arts in Directing and his ideal cast are all 2005 graduates of Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School. His means of emphasising the subjective ‘memory play’ aspects with non-naturalistic twists and distortions work a treat. And the way each character is realised without judgement by each actor is what adds the crucial quality of re-evaluation.

Michael Whalley’s Tom Wingfield remembers himself warts and all, an angry young man who takes his frustrations out on his long-suffering mother. As he confronts, manipulates, intrudes on, and extrudes the roles he, his mother, sister and friend from work – the much anticipated “gentlemen caller” – played out one climactic evening, I find myself genuinely concerned as to whether Tom is digging a hole for himself or slowly climbing out of it.

While it is clear he brought Jim home in order to earn his ticket out of there – out of town and out of this cloying excuse for life – Tom is still trying to work out whether the consequences of his selfish action were for the better or worse. And again the sincerity Rowan Bettjeman brings to Jim O-Connor, even in the midst of his self-aggrandising ambition, makes it impossible to make him the scapegoat for any hurt he may have caused.

Sure Amanda could be seen as pressuring Tom while idealising her past and investing too much in the vain hope that a gentleman caller – echoing the 17 she claims called on her in her prime – will come for Laura and liberate them all. But it would be too easy, for a young actor especially, to write her off as some ghastly Southern States harridan. Instead, in a truly luminous performance, Renee Sheridan’s Amanda wins heartfelt compassion for the sheer humanity of her drive for survival.

As for Laura, is she the sad little victim of the over-protective kindness of family? Not according to Jess Robinson’s portrayal. Fragile, yes. Sensitive and fearful. Given to escaping into the make believe world of her glass menagerie. But again there is an absolute truth in her way of being that demands respect and her sudden breakthroughs into different ways of being – thanks to Tom’s impositions – are as impressive as they are startling.

Having seen productions that impose judgements in order to extract a ‘message’ or ‘moral’, it is refreshing that this one reflects what we may suppose was Williams’ position when he wrote it: beginning to investigate the world he was born into and get some perspective on it. The questions we are left with are the same that keep Tom coming back, in his mind, to the place he couldn’t wait to escape:

§      Was Amanda a manipulative witch or a committed mother, putting her own life on hold while she tried to do the best for her children?

§      Was Laura the victim of a cruelly judgemental society that had no capacity to accommodate her ‘difference’ or was she disempowering herself by relying on others to take responsibility for her wellbeing?

§      Was Jim so fixated on being liked by people that he was blind to the messages he was sending or was he a genuinely compassionate human being, intuitively resistant to the male role convention was demanding of him?

§      Was Tom so self-absorbed he had no idea – at the time – of how it really was for his mother and sister, or was his own need to achieve independence the catalyst everyone needed in order to move on?

§      When the unicorn loses its horn and Laura says that’s fine because now it looks like an ordinary horse instead of a freak, is that good or bad?

§      Is this story tragic in its lose-lose outcome or comic, in the Chekovian sense, in that no-one dies and everyone is finally better off for the experience?

Laura Nicholls’ deep-reaching set, of white furniture on white boards against one white translucent wall, allowing telling silhouettes, all floating in darkness, supports the production superbly, although the black and broken fire escape is never integrated into the action as Williams, I think, envisaged.

Avoiding naturalistic props for the meals, and using small fragments of broken glass for the menagerie – intriguingly secreted under the floorboards – adds to the subjectivity and keeps the focus where it needs to be: on the people, their behaviours and the questions they raise.

A brilliantly sparse lighting design by Natala Gwiazdzinski emphasises the selectivity of memory and Katie Fletcher’s sound design evokes the distortions of memory, not least by playing on the resonant acoustic of the Te Whaea Garage space.

The downside of the acoustics, however, is that very loud voices get lost in their own echoes (when the actors are further back on the stage) and very soft voices disappear in the wide open space. But these are problems only briefly and the integrity of this deeply explored production is such that I have no sense that I missed anything crucial.

Having thoroughly enjoyed Wassenaar’s group-devised Delicates in this year’s Fringe, I am delighted to find he brings equal flair to directing a modern classic. If he returns to The Netherlands next year for good, their gain will be our loss.


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