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May. 20, 2022 | Friday
Editorials and Opinions
Review: Allegra Fulton Shines in Shaw's The Glass Menagerie
Guy Bannerman (Donald) and Jamie Williams (Blake), Foster Festival 2019 - The Writer. (Alex Heidbuechel/Supplied)


Tennessee Williams, my favourite American playwright, is up there with O’Neill, Miller and Albee, compelling, gut-wrenching yet tender and endearing. When you leave Shaw’s Jackie Maxwell Theatre after watching “The Glass Menagerie,” you know you have encountered an extraordinary play, so intense that it stays with you forever.

Allegra Fulton’s Amanda, a domineering southern belle of a mother, hope faded in the past like that of the Confederacy, is so mesmerizing and skilled that you can’t take your eyes off of her, even when she sits and sulks in the gloom of her claustrophobic apartment in a confined labyrinth of a set designed by Hungarian Balázs Cziegler who directs this offering with aplomb.

Amanda, her son, Tom (André Sills) and daughter Laura, (Julia Course) are joined in the second act by a “gentleman caller,” Jim O’Connor (Jonathan Tan) in the story of the family’s struggle to survive in St. Louis 16 years after Amanda’s husband has abandoned them. They are desperately impoverished, both economically and spiritually.

Amanda tries to sell magazine subscriptions on the phone, employing southern charm with trite phrases such as “You are a Christian martyr” to soften up clients, but foolishly calls one at 7 a.m. Tom unhappily works in a shoe warehouse and introverted and handicapped Laura listens to old gramophone music while playing like a child with her menagerie of glass animals.

In one remarkable scene, Tennessee Williams inserts hope and fantasy à la Disneyland into Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Course, shy and lame, slowly is enticed from her awkwardness by Tan, a former schoolmate. He acts kind and encouraging. She briefly blossoms, and they magically dance as in “La La Land.” Amidst rampant melancholy, hope soars, but we all know that it’s an illusion. People do not live happily ever after.

The Shaw acting is flawless, and Course picks up from where she left off in last season’s remarkable “The Baroness and the Pig,” her body language exquisite as she physically withdraws from the world. Sills, the narrator, is conflicted with his mother, torn between assisting his sister and leaving. Tan, the high school hero who was the star in debating and musicals, and much admired by the ladies, now works in the factory with Sills. He is sincere and tries to help Course, but Williams ingenuously has him accidentally break Course’s favourite glass animal, the unicorn, and also her heart.

Hanne Loosen’s costumes are flawless especially the contrasting dresses worn by mother and daughter to greet the gentleman caller. The lighting designed by Mikael Kangas is predominantly gloomy, the last scene by candlelight as Tom, the would-be poet, has failed to pay the electric bill, joining the merchant marine instead to fashion an escape. Nonetheless, we know that he will never find peace.

Congratulations to artistic director Tim Carroll for staging this Tennessee Williams play as it’s been too long since Shaw performed “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Menagerie’s success in 1945 launched a great career for the troubled playwright, including “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947), “Summer and Smoke” (1948), “The Rose Tattoo” (1951), “Camino Real” (1953), “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1955), “Suddenly Last Summer” (1958), “Sweet Bird of Youth” (1959) and “The Night of the Iguana” (1961).

“The Glass Menagerie” plays at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre to Oct. 12.