“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Those words - the opening of Anna Karenina - may help explain the enduring fascination with Tennessee Williams’ 1944 classic The Glass Menagerie, his still-compelling, partly autobiographical memory play. And the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s steady but complex production demands, and rewards, its audience’s attention.
Set in Depression-era St. Louis, the story follows a few tumultuous days in the life of the Wingfield clan - the frustrated and trapped poet Tom (Williams’ real first name); his mother Amanda, a faded southern belle; and his sister Laura, a physically and psychologically fragile introvert. While Tom yearns to escape, Amanda yearns to recapture some of her past glory by living vicariously through her children, and delicate Laura yearns simply to be ignored and left to tend to her collection of glass animals.
It’s all a slow-simmering, but satisfying, stew of family dysfunction, the inescapability of the past, and dashed dreams - all served with a helping of black humour to make it easier to digest. And the poetry of Williams’ dialogue, the intricate construction of his characters, and their nuanced relationships have lost none of their impact in the past 70 years.
Director Steven Schipper’s production dresses it up a bit for a modern audience. Although projected images and titles were a part of Williams’ original script, Schipper and designer Deco Dawson take the idea a step further with video projections displayed onstage.
Some of this works to great effect - Amanda’s interaction with the ghostly projections of her past “gentlemen callers,” for example.
But it is a technique sometimes overplayed - in particular, one key moment plays out mostly on video, and loses some of its immediacy and impact for it.
Schipper also draws fine performances from his four-person cast. Ryan Miller finds both the slightly mean-spirited humour and the desperation in Tom. He’s particularly good in his fiery exchanges with Kelli Fox’s Amanda. His monologues, though - the connective tissue of the play - sometimes feel like they’ve lost some of the dark comedy they might have for the bitterness with which they’re delivered.
Fox is a delight as Amanda. She’s able to go from girlish southern charm to acidic condemnation in an instant. And she finds the humanity in a character who could easily become the stock “villain” of the piece – but is much more fully realized here.
Andrea del Campo brings a heart-wrenching frailty to Laura - her subtle fidgeting and retreating body language speak volumes, and make her a compelling character. She does, though, give Laura a curious accent of indeterminate origin, which was no small distraction for me in a play where setting is key.
Tim Ziegler rounds out the cast nicely as Laura’s decent, if clumsy, gentleman caller.
The hazy melancholy of memory so essential to the play is conveyed smartly by Charlotte Dean’s fascinating set, centred around a proscenium arch within the stage’s proscenium arch, and backed by the rough outlines of buildings around the Wingfields’ apartment block.
It reminds us that we’re watching, as Tom says, “truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” Likewise, the delicate and nostalgic music of the late Marc Desormeux (composed for an earlier Stratford production) provides a suitably haunting, and haunted, score to the play.
This Glass Menagerie is a production that has a couple of slightly jagged edges. But in the end, it lets the beauty of Williams’ masterpiece shine through.
See The Glass Menagerie at the John Hirsch Mainstage until March 8. Hear video projection designer Deco Dawson on Up to Speed with host Ismaila Alfa on Friday February 14 at 3:10 p.m., then hear Joff Schmidt at 4:10 p.m.