The Glass Menagerie explores a family crazier than yours
If you happened to be exploring the empty streets of North Braddock Avenue last weekend, you may have come across an old warehouse, its brick walls splashed with graffiti. Inside this building, if you were to walk through its cavernous rooms to take the lift to the fourth floor, you may have then come across a strange sight: a large white oblong box with silvery string curtains hanging along its sides.
This was not some black monolith from a race of intergalactic higher beings; rather, it was the set of the School of Drama’s production of The Glass Menagerie, one of American playwright Tennessee Williams’ most renowned plays. The Glass Menagerie, based on Williams’ own youth and family life, is an intimate glimpse into the insanity of the dysfunctional Wingfield family, and it is this insanity that stood at the front and center of the production. Directed by John Wells directing program fellow Michelle Sutherland, the production revealed in the abstract that although the dialogue and characters maintained the original script and were grounded and realistic enough, everything else in the production was a stark departure from reality, to offer us “truth in disguise of illusion.”
Senior acting major Claire Chapelli played Amanda, a faded southern belle who becomes a poor single mother after her husband leaves her. Chapelli, who also co-wrote the original music for the production, brought a brilliant performance that evoked both revulsion and sympathy. Senior acting major Joe Mendick played Tom, the sole provider of the family who longs to escape his job at a shoe warehouse and become a poet. Senior acting major Sarah-Nicole Robles played Laura Wingfield, a painfully shy girl of 24 who is content to live in her world of Victrola records and glass animals. Senior acting major Carl Lundstedt played the gentleman caller, Jim O’Connor, a guest who is invited by the Wingfields in the expectation that he will take a liking to Laura.
As for the choreography of actors, each character had their own distinctive poses and movements. For example, Amanda Wingfield, the mother, snapped with both hands, and her son Tom often made motions as if he were drawing a bow at his mother. The actors constantly moved about each other in circular movements; in quarrels and heated engagements, they frantically twirled around each other. Conversations involved bizarre rituals in which a pair of shoes were moved about, hands were raised and then abruptly slapped down again, and there was much pacing back and forth.
The bizarreness of these rituals were only further highlighted when a visitor came to the family’s home and, like a tourist in a foreign city, tried to navigate his way through their social conventions. Like the audience, his confusion was apparent as he accidentally disrupted the family’s rituals and failed in trying to emulate them.
These movements, which had to seem natural but sharply distinctive, added an extra dimension of difficulty in terms of acting, but the actors pulled them off incredibly well.
The aforementioned stage — white frame, pink floor, and string curtains — contained only a few set pieces and felt vast and empty, yet at the same time restrictive and prisonlike. Watching the action on stage from the audience felt like looking into a large aquarium. The curtains along the side of the stage doubled as a screen that projected images and live recordings from two cameras along the sides of the box. The Glass Menagerie was originally written with such a screen to be used in the play, but many productions often leave out the screen, deeming it unnecessary or pretentious. However, the School of Drama’s production put it at the forefront of attention. The way the stage was built, the entirety of the play took place behind the curtain, within the box. The curtain-screen was used to great symbolic, as well as practical, effect.
The screen aided in transitions and created momentary distractions during the course of the play. The actors sometimes traced their fingers on the curtain as they walked along the sides of the box, disrupting the vertical serenity of the curtain strings, and sometimes they brushed it aside, peeking out into the audience. However, the screen was used most effectively when it was used to project close-ups of the actors’ faces, which created a more intimate setting and allowed the audience to see the actors’ expressions better. The screen was also often used to build atmosphere. During the final act of the play, when all the other lights were dimmed, the screen became lit up by sparkles of light, creating a momentary feeling of magic.
Interestingly enough, the production seemed to draw influences from Japanese theater in its use of auditory cues to heighten drama, as well as the exaggerated movements and poses of the actors.
Throughout the production, bells, ominous chimes, whistles, and the crash of broken glass sounded through the performance area. The production also made use of musical sequences, in which the actors sang before the cameras. Psychedelic music and imagery were used in these sequences to offer a look into the characters’ mental states.
The School of Drama production brought a distinctive flavor and energy to an already incredible play. At times brilliant, disturbing, funny, and always deeply rooted within a world of its own, The Glass Menagerie was truly a unique experience to behold.