Remy Auberjonois as Tom Wingfield in the Guthrie Theater’s production of The Glass Menagerieby Tennessee Williams. Photo by T Charles Erickson.
Memories are a funny thing. The past is more dependent on the memory-teller’s viewpoint than it is on what actually occurred in the past. Tennessee William’s classic play The Glass Menagerie deals with the unique affect that memories, regardless of their accuracy, can have on our lives. In directing Menagerie at the Guthrie, Artistic Director Joel Haj adroitly focuses on memories and how they bring both joy and despair into one’s life.
The emphasis on memory becomes clear in the beginning when the narrator Tom, played by Remy Auberjonois, appears as a middle age man both when narrating and in playing the younger Tom. Initially, I felt having the middle-aged Tom in both roles just didn’t work, but changed my mind as the play progressed. Why? I realized that we are seeing the entire play though the viewpoint of the middle-aged Tom – so there is no younger Tom left to portray the story. Auberjonois deftly plays Tom with a sense of humor, which injects a level of hilarity into the entire production while still showing Tom’s despair.
Tom sees his mother Amanda, played by Jennifer Van Dyck, as a hypercritical mother and nag who makes his life hell. But Van Dyck shows us a multifaceted Amanda. Even if Tom does not see her good points, his memories are sufficient to show us that Amanda is a strong woman. Despite the desertion of his husband, she managed to keep her remaining family intact and care for her physically and emotionally disabled daughter. At times, Van Dyck’s Amanda can appear to be self-centered focusing on her memories of multiple gentleman callers in the past, but these apparently exaggerated memories bring her only joy. (Look for subtle changes in the lighting design by Christopher Akerlind during several of these scenes.) Amanda is also fiercely protective of her daughter Laura. Amanda puts a great burden on her son to be the breadwinner for the family forcing him to work a job he detests. But she recognizes that it is a burden, seeking a solution that will leave Laura taken care of and free Tom to pursue his desired adventures.
Tom loves his sister Laura, played by Carey Cox, but perceives her as weak and peculiar. Cox succeeds in playing Laura as fragile when it comes to facing the outside word. But Cox’s Amanda also shows strength when she acts as the family peacemaker and becomes protective of Amanda when Tom tries to shut down one of Amanda’s strolls down memory lane. Laura’s strength is also seen when she grows more confident during her meeting with her brother’s work friend, Jim O’Connor (Grayson DeJesus). She overcomes her initial shyness and starts talking openly with O’Connor about her limited life and her glass menagerie. With her openness, she succeeds in making herself desirable to O’Connor.
Our experience of the play’s memory concept is somewhat inconsistent, as when Tom recalls key scenes with dialogue details despite not being present. The first scene occurs in the beginning when Tom’s mother Amanda confronts his sister Laura about her failure to attend business school. The second occurs when Laura spends time alone with O’Connor. Once one realizes that Tom could have only heard about these events second-hand or simply made assumptions about what occurred, they take on new meaning, leading one to wonder if Tom correctly interpreted these moments or are they distorted by his guilt.
At the end of the play, the middle-aged Tom is a haunted figure, plagued by the assumption that his desertion of Laura and Amanda resulted in tragedy. He would prefer to forget about Laura than deal with his conduct but he can’t seem to do either. Yet Tom’s memory of how his leaving affected Laura might be skewed. Life may not have been easy, but it is hard to imagine that the fierce Amanda would have just given up after Tom left. She is a fighter and odds are she may have helped Laura survive and maybe even thrive. Although Laura was devastated when she learned the truth about O’Connor, she still managed to part with her most beloved glass piece. Did this signify that Laura was giving up or did it show she was finally ready to move beyond her glass menagerie and make a place for herself in the world?
Even if Amanda and Laura survived and possibly prospered after Tom left, it makes no difference to Tom’s fate. Haj’s production shows that because Tom exiled himself from his family, he is only left with his guilt-ridden memories…leaving no hope of finding absolution.
The Glass Menagerie plays at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis through October 27, 2019.
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