The Glass Menagerie heralded the arrival of Tennessee Williams. It was the first of his “plastic” memory plays, mining the rich seam of material from his own unhappy adolescence.
Over the following two decades he would perfect the formula, creating some of the great American plays, but The Glass Menagerie remains among his best known works, in large part due to its ubiquity on school curriculums (it’s a great introduction to symbolism, the fragile, insular Laura Wingfield devoting her life to the titular collection of hermetically-sealed glass figurines).
It’s a strange, sad little play, a family melodrama introduced by a fourth wall breaking narrator who recounts the events of a night from his early adulthood.
It is not, however, a play that offers much in the way of fireworks, not an obvious star vehicle, so I was interested to see what Amy Adams, one of the finest actors in Hollywood, planned to bring to her London stage debut at the Duke of York’s theatre.
The answer is… not enough. She proves herself to be a more than competent stage actor, never missing a beat, a consummate professional. But there was little in her performance that couldn’t have been achieved by any number of jobbing stage actors, no secret sparkle beyond the frisson of excitement lent by her celebrity.
She plays Amanda Wingfield, the archetypal fading southern belle who, having been ditched by her husband, is struggling to raise her two children. On the fateful night in question, she has managed to secure a “gentleman caller” for her daughter Laura, a workmate of her son Tom, the younger version of our all-knowing narrator. It does not go well.
Often portrayed as a tyrant, a case study for parents bequeathing their troubles to their offspring, Adams puts Amanda in a more sympathetic light; even her outrageous flirtations with her daughter’s potential beau are understated.
Adams is supported by yet more understated performances: there is little to Laura beyond her fragility; the younger Tom is full of the indignation of youth but not explosively so; even the gentleman caller, Jim O’Connor, is surprisingly likeable.
The set, designed by Vicki Mortimer, is impressive, with a suitably monolithic glass cabinet dominating the stage. There’s also some striking use of lighting, especially when the family climb to the roof to watch the moon. But I could have done without the frequent – and, from where I was sitting, partially obscured – scene-setting projections.
It’s a production that simmers but never boils, the audience left in the same position as the characters, hoping that something is about to catch fire, only to be met with the dawning realisation that it never will.