Last year, Seana McKenna gave an amazing, revelatory performance in the Stratford production of Orpheus Rising, until recently a rarely produced work in the Tennessee Williams catalogue. This year, in collaboration with director Miles Potter, she is giving us new insights into The Glass Menagerie, one of the most produced plays in the Williams canon.
I find it difficult to be coolly discerning during performances of The Glass Menagerie. This is a drama that impressively explores the hidden meanings behind human memories, one that delves deeply into the conflicting emotions of pride, affection, disappointment, betrayal and shame that should accompany an honest remembrance of loss. Williams, while still a young man, wrote a play that displays an old man’s insight into the way life demands the sad acceptance of regret, failure and missed opportunities.
Like most Stratford productions, designer Peter Harwell’s set and costumes seem perfectly attuned to the needs of the play and the wishes of the director. This being Stratford, even composer Marc Desormeaux’s incidental music is a perfect addition to the emotional experience of the evening.
Also, this being Stratford, two of the actors in the cast provide perfectly competent performances. Sara Topham as Laura Wingfield and Matthew MacFadzean as Jim O’Connor (the Gentleman Caller) give well-rounded readings of their characters. However, their major scene together somehow fails to reach the emotional highpoints that one hopes for. I suspect this is because MacFadzean’s Jim is too brisk and efficient. It really looks as if he will become the TV big shot that he aims to be — but surely one of the knife twists of Williams’ plot should be the audience’s awareness of Jim’s eventual fate as a dull failure.
While the emotional climax in this production goes a little awry, the rest is made transcendent through the work of McKenna in the role of Laura’s mother Amanda. In McKenna’s and her director’s view, Amanda is not a demented harridan, nor an angry and disappointed woman revisiting her anger at her husband’s abandonment. Certainly she is naturally disappointed with life, and the way she betrays that regret in her behaviour and her attitudes continually grate and annoy her grown-up children.
But McKenna’s skill is in making us realize the extent of Amanda’s acute self-awareness. She knows and regrets the curtain that has gone up between her and Tom, played by Stephen Sutcliffe. But while they are at loggerheads, the two actors brilliantly show just how much Amanda and Tom love each other and share their desperate concern for Laura. McKenna’s Amanda has a natural sense of humour and a mother’s empathetic, bodily connection to her unhappy, increasingly distant son. This is a woman who has loved and is still loved; who has drawn strength from her successes and her failures. All that is left is to acknowledge the strength that will sustain her till the end.