Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Glass Menagerie: Deconstructing Memory

Never trust a memoirist.

Haven’t we learned that lesson yet? Remember James (A Million Little Pieces) Frey being upbraided by Oprah for using her to promote his fake memoir depicting his alleged drug addiction and recovery? Or the more recent never-actually-happened Holocaust memoir of the long-married couple who supposedly met while he was a Concentration Camp inmate and she the young village girl who passed him food through the barbed wire fence?

Even when deliberate chicanery is not the goal, memories are most unreliable things. Even as they are being formed, they are filtered through the emotional and cognitive interpretations of those who are experiencing them, so that objective reality immediately becomes an idiosyncratic version of reality.

With the passage of time, memories continue to reshape themselves, especially in the revisiting and retelling of them. An unpleasant occurrence becomes an amusing anecdote. “I wish I had told that SOB what I really thought of him” becomes “And I stood up right up to him and said...” Perhaps in this way we strive to find resolution to regrets and lost opportunities.

So, what do we make of The Glass Menagerie, or, more specifically, of the current production of Tennessee Williams' iconic “memory play”? Long regarded as an autobiographical play about Williams' family, the production of The Glass Menagerie now on view at the Laura Pels takes a more modernist stance by challenging that assumption and suggesting that what we are seeing is one of those suspect memoirs. Director Gordon Edelstein has altered our viewing of the play by having it unfold directly in Tom’s mind ('Tom' being Tennessee Williams' birth name) as he is in the process of writing it. The production is set in a hotel room, where Tom has ensconced himself with his typewriter and a bottle of Bourbon, and the action of the play takes place within that room—like parallel universes coexisting in the same space. In playing his duel roles of playwright and scion of the “Wingfield” family, Tom crosses those two universes in order to interact with the other characters—his mother Amanda, sister Laura, and “The Gentleman Caller,” the knight in shining armor who has been brought in to rescue Laura from a life of agoraphobic seclusion.

This production has been criticized in some circles for removing us from directly experiencing the action, with the “nudge nudge wink wink” of the framing device that reminds us this is a play, not reality. Frankly, I appreciated this approach. Tom, after all, is not really Tennessee Williams, and The Glass Menagerie was not written in a secret diary. It is a play, originally conceived as a screenplay. Williams wrote it with the expectation, or at least, the ambition, that it would be produced, that it would launch him full tilt into the glamorous world of Hollywood.

Thus, Edelstein has given us memory in its many forms: Tom actually remembering his family; his idiosyncratic view of his family; his idiosyncratic view of own place within the family structure; his self-serving recollection of events; and the public image he wishes to portray. All of these coexist in Edelstein’s version, and, from my perspective, it all works well.

One of the reasons it works well is because it is well-acted. Judith Ivey captures Amanda Wingfield in all of her complexity: abandoned wife, overbearing mother, flirtatious Southern belle, and practical and sacrificing breadwinner trying to hold things together. The fragile Laura, as portrayed by Keira Keeley, seems to exaggerate her crippled gait as it suits her purposes; in her own way, she is as self-serving and self-protective as the rest of her clan. Patch Darragh imbues Tom with layers of restlessness, anger, self-deprecation, social awkwardness, a strong sense of the absurd, and a sharp tongue with which he lashes out at Amanda.

In the second act, when Tom’s coworker, the long-awaited Gentleman Caller, shows up for dinner (and, at least as planned by Amanda, to woo Laura), Edelstein and actor Michael Mosley give us what we must have in order for the play to work. First, they allow us to see the Wingfields through the eyes of a “normal” outsider; the rituals and dysfunctional behaviors that have sustained them as a family suddenly appear quite outlandish. Second, and most importantly, The Gentleman Caller remains a gentleman throughout, and his kind, supportive, quiet conversation with Laura—away from the bickering Amanda and Tom—provides an emotional high point of both the play and of this production: Williams’ “the kindness of strangers” in action.

The delicate moment cannot last, of course, and The Glass Menagerie ends as it must. Tom leaves Amanda and Laura to fend for themselves and goes off to embrace his own destiny, which includes sharing this version of the story with the rest of us.

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