In the treasure-house of memorable productions staged by Dundee Rep Theatre, Jemima Levick’s version of Tennessee Williams’s iconic name-making play, The Glass Menagerie, must count among the best. I was unprepared for the sensitivity, perfect timing and sheer dramatic artistry of the actors in this four-hander, set in the American Deep South of the 1930s.
Autobiographical detail is never far from the surface in The Glass Menagerie: the absent father, who has “fallen in love with long distances”; Tom Wingfield, the son sent to work in the shoe company warehouse to support his family; the frail sister Laura, for whom he will always feel responsible, as Williams did for his own sister, Rose; Amanda , their mother, fantasizer, long-faded Southern Belle; the shabby St Louis apartment. Everything is mined from Williams’s own experience of life in his early years.
Irene Macdougall, a regular with the Dundee Rep Company, plays Amanda with confidence and understated brilliance, never deviating from the demands of accent, character and tone, as she moves seamlessly from memories of the ”gentleman callers” of her youth to the desperation of an overbearing and poverty-stricken mother, intent on finding a husband for her crippled daughter.
Robbie Jack as Tom, is equally captivating. His almost Shakespearian prologue, delivered impeccably, at a microphone stand with just a sheer black wall as backdrop, clearly gripped the capacity audience. Standing outside the time of the action, like a Greek chorus, commenting on what might have been, he explains that this is a ”memory play”, a series of scenes which may, or may not, relate perfectly to the truth of his past life. .
Laura, looking as if a breath of St Louis air might blow her away, is played by Millie Turner. Hiding from reality and life and dropping out of her typing course, to the wrath of her mother, Laura focuses on her collection of glass animals – her glass menagerie – and her phonograph, with its small collection of scratched records. Turner hobbles, makes wringing movements with her hands, (reminiscent, I have to say, of an unlikely Lady Macbeth) and falls into a swoon at the slightest sign of stress.
The relationship between Amanda and Tom, in his going-nowhere job at the warehouse, is tempestuous and framed in raw emotion. It seems to replicate the relationship between Amanda and her long-gone husband, whom she depicts by turns as wonderfully larger-than-life, and as a dismal failure, a drunkard without ambition. ”You’re just like your father”, she howls as Tom is on his way out of her life too, full of guilt and resentment.
The type-writer written phrase, “the accent of a coming foot” flashes briefly above the stage as Jim O’Connor, Amanda’s long-awaited “gentleman caller”, played with panache by Thomas Cotran, arrives on the scene. Turner almost becomes a different character as the set brightens and the symbolic candles are lit; new light seems to penetrate Laura’s soul as Jim talks to her. They discover they were at high school together. He kisses her, only to dash her hopes minutes later by telling her he is already engaged to be married. The light fades again and things are as they were.
Alex Lowde’s set is sparse, with its intermittent sound backdrop of faraway music. The actions of household activities are mimed to heighten the minimalist effect. Subtle hints breathe the fire of Missouri nights: Amanda fans her face absentmindedly with a newspaper and talks of ”light food and light clothes” or goes to breathe in the cool night air on the porch. The lighting, with its hard edges, illuminates the characters like a Hopper painting of the same period; they look out from their solitude and guilt onto a world they cannot own. Laura does what Tom tells her and blows out the candles of memory.