BLOG Alice Vernon

NWR Issue 110

The Glass Menagerie

On Saturday 12 March, I went to watch Theatr Pena’s production of ‘The Glass Menagerie’ at Aberystwyth Arts Centre. Originally premiering in Chicago in the 1940s, Tennessee Williams’ four-character play is an intense glimpse into the fractures that spread through a small, damaged family. Directed by Erica Eirian, the play was suitably stark and engaging, exposing all the agonies and deathly silences in Williams’ characters. It was gripping stuff.

As a semi-autobiographical work, it is emotionally raw and brimming with bitterness and self-loathing. The Wingfield family, comprised of the sentimental and overbearing Amanda Wingfield (Rosamund Shelley) and her two children Tom and Laura, live in an environment of constant miscommunication and frustration. Laura (Eiry Thomas), physically handicapped and devastatingly shy, is pressed by her mother to make something of herself and attract the mysterious species known as ‘gentleman callers’. Tom, on the other hand, is imploding with poetry and rage. He wants to do the right thing for Laura, but seems haunted by the presence of his absent father. Played by Rhys Meredith, Tom both fills a role in the story and steps outside of the plot as its narrator, guiding the audience through the shards of memory that make up the play. Meredith’s portrayal of Tom stood in excellent contrast to Eiry Thomas’ Laura: Tom was sturdy yet world-weary, and Laura was delicately tense. Rosamund Shelley brought incredible humour, sadness and irritation to the fragile character of Amanda – skilfully peeling back the layers of her proud façade. Further on in the play, the Wingfields are joined for dinner by Tom’s friend – and supposed gentleman-caller – Jim O’Connor (Gareth Pierce). Pierce was sharp and stylish as Jim – everything you want to see in a modern attempt at 1940s American masculinity. The personalities Tennessee Williams brings together here jar and stir up the worst in each other, and Theatr Pena’s production masterfully created a sense of hostility and distance.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Theatr Pena’s The Glass Menagerie was its set design. The props were minimal and plain, but the glass menagerie itself stood glowing in the centre of the stage. At the very start, Tom alludes to the figure of the absent father, who ‘appears’ as an empty, lit frame hanging above the dining table. The blue strip lights that formed this figure imprinted on my eyes so that whenever I looked away I could still see an after-image of the memories unfolding in front of me. It was an extra touch that introduced a transient, haunting quality. This frame also brought out the play’s emphasis on imagination: ‘illusion’ as Tom puts it. Just as Laura explains the significance of the relationships within her glass menagerie, each member of the audience is involved in filling in the blanks, from the imaginary food on the table to the unseen face of the father looming over proceedings. Fog spilled out, making the story seem hazy and half-remembered.

Though the Arts Centre theatre was only at half capacity, those who did attend were engrossed. There wasn’t a single cough or rustle – if there was, I was too preoccupied to be distracted. Theatr Pena triumphed in creating an intimate and deeply passionate performance of one of Tennessee Williams’ most famous plays.

Alice Vernon is a blogger-in-residence for New Welsh Review, and a PhD candidate in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University.

Theatr Pena’s production of ‘The Glass Menagerie toured Wales until 19 March 2016


previous blog: Scratch Night at Aberystwyth Arts Centre
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