The Glass Menagerie review: A handsome but muted new production

The Gate’s staging tones down the wilder curlicues of Tennessee Williams’s play

THE GLASS MENAGERIE

Gate Theatre, Dublin
★★★☆☆
Memory is like quicksand in The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams's first success as a playwright, from 1944: it swallows each of its characters whole. Being a memory play, Marty Rea's nicely dissipated Tom informs us, "It is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic."

Conjuring up his neurotic home life with sparing detail, now from a distant shore, Tom sees his fretful mother, Amanda (Samantha Bond), adrift in memories of her “gentleman callers” while projecting anxious fantasies upon her children. His sister, Laura (Zara Devlin), lame and insecure, withdraws into similarly precious glass figurines while occasionally stoking girlhood crushes. Even Tom’s ambitious work pal, one potential gentleman caller, is ready to slip into the glories of yesteryear. So too is the Gate’s handsome but muted new production, which can seem nostalgic for the theatre’s old programming policy.

If there is a compelling reason to stage the play today, its director and designer, Tom Cairns, doesn't advance it, presenting a classic for classic's sake.

The busier details the play calls for are replaced by tasteful  calligraphy or ignored entirely, while Williams's huffing, puffing characters now observe a retrospective smoking ban

The layers of transparent scrims that represent this 1930s St Louis apartment, here more cavernous than claustrophobic, may seem cumbersome, but they are close to what Williams asks for. A more fascinatingly awkward embellishment, a translucent enclosure that is easier to interpret than it is to look at, dangles above the dining room like another “jewel box” – but one that dulls the stage, like the blanched colour palette of Lorna Marie Mugan’s costumes.

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Similarly, the busier details the play calls for – flashes of blue roses, scenes of childhood, a “swarm of typewriters” – are replaced by tastefully animated calligraphy or ignored entirely, while Williams’s huffing, puffing characters now observe a retrospective smoking ban.

That decision to tone down the playwright's wilder curlicues has consequences for the performances, which won't light up either. As Amanda, Samantha Bond is a sympathetic striver, a figure of touching eccentricity rather than smothering neurosis. Insinuating herself next to Frank Blake's gentleman caller, Jim, she looks more startled than seductive.

Devlin’s gentle Laura, shunted downstage left for the most part, is allowed little room to create an impression. The tensions of three adult family members manoeuvring around “a small apartment” – something that really ought to resonate during a housing crisis – are only mildly sketched. So much so that even Rea’s fine performance can’t convey the roots for Tom’s angry explosions, his boozy retreats and what later amounts to an astonishing betrayal.

A more vivid presence, oddly, becomes their otherwise absent father, a rakish figure in a photograph who materialises, in a pleasing illusion, clutching a telephone. He fell in love with long distances, we’re told, in a production struggling with a weaker connection.

Perhaps that’s what happens when you try to bring Williams down to ground. Jim, we are assured early, will be “an emissary from a world of reality” where the others belong to another. Yet here they actually seem smaller than life, their memory glowing but faintly. The southern belle is not the only thing that seems faded.

Runs at the Gate until Saturday, June 1st