Tuesday, August 9, 2011


Nancy Palk, Gemma James-Smith and Stuart Hughes. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Reviewed by James Karas

This year marks the centenary of Tennessee Williams’ birth (March 26, 1911) and both the Shaw Festival and Soulpepper are marking the occasion with productions of two of his masterpieces. The Shaw Festival tips its hat to the great American playwright with Cat On A Hot Tin Roof while Soulpepper bows with a production of The Glass Menagerie.

The Glass Menagerie which premiered in 1944 established the theatrical world that Williams was to occupy for the rest of his creative career. It is a world of people who are on the edge – fragile, barely able to or unable to cope, living in a past that never existed and searching for a future that will never come. Like the fragile glass figurines that Laura possesses, adores and indeed lives with, his characters’ lives can be shattered at any moment.

It is not an easy world to capture and the current production directed by Ted Dykstra at the Young Centre is only partially successful. There are a couple less than stellar performances and the staging and overall-effect fails to provide a cohesive and convincing atmosphere.

Tom (Stuart Hughes) is the narrator and a key character in the play. He is a partially autobiographical version of Williams who is holding a terrible job, trying to become a writer and escape from the drudgery of life with his mother and sister. Tom’s escape route is the movies but when that proves insufficient, he leaves everything behind and joins the merchant navy.

There are several problems with Hughes’s performance. He is given a sort of Southern accent that he cannot quite manage and is quite unnecessary. He speaks quickly in a dream play where the desperation of the character is more important than getting us through the text posthaste. His anger comes out and he reacts to the other characters effectively but Dykstra should have slowed him down and chucked the idea of an accent.

The person that drives the play and everyone in it crazy is Amanda Wingfield, the mother who imagines a glorious past on a Southern plantation where gentlemen callers came and life was wonderful. Instead of marrying one of the rich callers, she went for a ne’er-do-well who left her with their two children and was never heard of again. They live in a crummy apartment where the electricity is cut off because the bill was not paid but she still dreams of that slendid past and imagines her cripple daughter finding a rich husband.

She is pathetic, infuriating and in many ways sympathetic. Nancy Palk is a slender woman with a strong voice who brings out some of Amanda’s traits but it is hard to see her as a pathetic figure. Palk’s talents are not what Amanda requires.

Dykstra has better luck with Gemma James-Smith as Laura. She is a bit chubby for the role but her performance does bring out the pathos, fragility and utter defeat of a young girl who was late for class in high school and had to clump down the aisle. Her brother Tom brings a “gentleman caller” from work, the man she adored from a distance in high school and in the very moving second act of the play, her hopes are raised by his expression of some affection and a kiss, only to be completely crushed when he tells her that he has a girlfriend.

The best performance is delivered by Jeff Lillico as the Gentleman Caller. He was a high school hero but life has not turned out as expected. He is working in the same warehouse as Tom and taking courses in public speaking and radio engineering in order to improve himself. Like Amanda, he is full of braggadocio and hopes for a future that may never come as he looks back to a glorious past that is long gone. Lillico raises his voice in the fashion of one addressing a public gathering but he does show tenderness in the scene with Laura.

The dream quality of the play and the pathos are missing form the first half of the production. What we get is a dysfunctional family that is infuriating but not much more. Things do come together in the second half, especially the scene with Laura and the Gentleman Caller but that is not enough to give us more than a decent production of a great play.


The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams opened on July 6 and will run in repertory until September 10, 2011 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca 416 866-8666.

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