The Glass Menagerie

Tennessee Williams’ Play on the Power of Memory and the Futility of Living in Dreams of the Past

It’s a Saturday night in November. The air is damp and the streets are slick from tireless drizzle. Collar turned up, you might walk right past the tiny entrance to the International Theatre on Porzellangasse in Vienna’s 9th District. It is an intimate venue, only 66 seats, that allows for an honest, unpretentious, and high quality theatrical experience.

The theater bar is crowded when you arrive just before 19:00 to collect your tickets. There’s still a half hour till show time for coffee or wine in the bar under wall-to-wall photos, captured highlights of productions past.

First call. Patrons make their way into the worn, red velvet seats in one of the theater’s eight rows. The lights go down. The closing performance of Tennessee Williams’ classic play The Glass Menagerie begins.

A single spot comes up stage right and suddenly, it is the year 1944 as Tom, character and narrator played by Australian actor Michael Nield, appears on the fire escape of the Wingfield apartment against a wall of interwoven purple lights. Williams himself did not want naturalistic lighting, and director Jack Babb goes so far as to say that the lighting should be like a character in the play.

Nield, with pouting lips and a tight black cap, lends a bad boy edge to Tom’s character, an unusual interpretation. “Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve,” he says, his attitude more reminiscent of James Dean than the usual Tom worn down by his mother’s nagging. He lingers on his words with a smooth sarcasm.

This is a memory play and Nield says he wants to emphasize that aspect of his character, that he’s distanced himself from the ferociously difficult situation in the Wingfield household.

Tom, who lives with his mother Amanda, and sister Laura, who is a dreamer. He wants out, but is bound by emotional strings and duty to the two women. The furthest he goes is to bars and to the movies, something Amanda frequently questions, and to which Tom reacts with a spontaneous, natural anger.  In the quarrels between mother and son, Nield is aggressive, playing Tom in primary colors. “If you act, you get in the way,” Nield says afterwards.

Our first look into the Wingfield apartment is stunning. The shabby mauve seat pushed up against the left wall covered in worn, flowered wall paper, the bare desk, the dining room table in the room behind and bare light bulb hanging high above.  However, these are all up-staged by the glass menagerie, which sits glistening at the edge of the set, where Laura (Marianna de Fazio) often sits, virtually motionless. “The idea behind the set was to make it a cage,” Babb said. “For Tom, it’s the whole set. For Laura it’s the glass menagerie.”

Laura is painfully shy and lame in one leg. Amanda’s hopes and dreams rest on her ability to one day meet a suitable “gentleman caller,” but she cowers and speaks unsteadily, huddling in the corner when Amanda and Tom argue. Still, de Fazio is not entirely convincing and some of the underlying pain and quiet hopefulness of Laura’s character is lost to a more nerdy awkward silence punctuated by nervous blurting. She is, however, unquestionably stunning as her mother puts the finishing touches on her floral dress that nearly transforms her into a young Amanda.

One of de Fazio’s best moments is when she is alone with the gentleman caller Jim, played by a tall, muscular Gregory J. Nelson.  Jim is egotistical and obnoxious with his Dale Carnegi e gestures and too-short sleeves of an overgrown boy. Against him, flowered wall-paper Laura, petrified and demure, all but disappears.

Amanda (Laura Mitchell) dominates the stage, gliding across it with the grace of a dancer.  Mitchell pulls the subtleties from the character with such seeming ease that we feel the cumbersome, oversized sleeves on her bathrobe and the airy flirtation of long-lost summers. She cannot talk to Tom without fidgeting — fluffing a big pillow in an oversized case, brushing his hair feverishly, running to him with his scarf and tying it desperately around his neck.

In a hideous pink debutante dress from her youth, she captures our pity. She cradles a bouquet of yellow silk jonquils, seeming to pass it as delicately as a magic wand over the injustices of her past, against the backdrop of a cheap red Chinese lantern, crooked candle and lace tablecloth.

What is perhaps most remarkable about this performance are the risks taken, the commitment to fresh portrayals of legendary characters, a new marriage of venerable and modern in this dollhouse performing space. In the midst of the generous applause, one thing is clear: Good things can definitely come in small packages.

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