Economic hardship, the complex tensions between parents and adult children, the tyranny of self-criticism, and the horror of being trapped by circumstance: These are the universal themes of The Glass Menagerie. Tennessee Williams’s classic memory play debuted more than 65 years ago, but the anxieties of its characters speak directly to a modern audience—perhaps even more so in today’s climate than they could have five years ago.
Ensemble Theatre’s production, directed by Jonathan Fox, maintains something of the play’s hazy, metaphoric quality, but it also grounds its characters in a real setting: a cramped 1930s St. Louis apartment dominated by the desperate and overbearing Amanda Wingfield. Sara Botsford brings to the character more nuanced emotion and, therefore, more humanity than Amanda is sometimes given. The way she hovers over her son—stirring cream into his coffee against his protestations and breathing down his neck as he tries to write—is positively cringe-worthy, yet her nostalgic reveries about her promising young adulthood and subsequent marriage to an alcoholic reveal the depth of her disappointment.
As the narrator and Amanda’s son, Tom, fresh-faced Joe Delafield gives a commanding performance. Here is a gruff, cigarette-smoking young man working long shifts at the factory to provide for his family. Tom’s doing everything he can to fill in for an absent father, but the strain of it is driving him to drink just as it did his father. Tom is Williams’s alter ego: the frustrated dreamer who writes poetry in the bathroom when work at the factory is slow. Delafield makes Tom’s desperation palpable and his situation classically tragic; he must choose to live life trapped or to abandon his family.
For Laura, his sister, the trap of family is no less dire, but she is about as capable of escape as the brittle figurines in her glass menagerie. Erin Pineda makes this Laura charming, even lovable, yet fatally dependent on her mother. When Jim (Joel Gelman), the jovial gentleman caller, finally arrives, Laura seems to understand that she’s on the verge of salvation, and also to understand when her hopes are dashed.
A clever set designed by Neil Prince makes great use of the small stage, and J. Kent Inasy’s lighting is masterful. For those who read The Glass Menagerie in high school and haven’t given it much thought since, this production is a wonderful opportunity to return to a great classic of American theater. For those who know the play well, Fox’s direction brings the tensions of The Glass Menagerie firmly into the real world, giving it unusual immediacy and contemporary relevance.