JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE GLASS MENAGERIE at Dundee Rep, for The Scotsman 8.9.14.
4 stars ****
IF LOVE IS THE answer, it’s one that men often fail to hear, until it is much too late. The genius of Tennessee Williams’s great youthful memory-play The Glass Menagerie – which opened in New York in 1944, propelling him to overnight fame – is that it captures with exquisite clarity the moment, back in the hungry late 1930’s, when our young hero Tom Wingfield decides that his love for his fragile, vulnerable sister Laura is no longer enough to keep him in the cramped St. Louis apartment he shares with her, and with his dramatic, demanding mother, Amanda, a former southern belle now living in sadly reduced circumstances.
Tom’s decision to leave evolves from possibility to certainty over a few months, during which his mother’s efforts to secure a future for Laura become ever more frantic, culminating in the visit of the much-longed-for “gentleman caller”, a colleague of Tom’s from the grim shoe warehouse where he works. In the end, though, nothing can shift the heavy sense of failure and ill luck that hangs about both mother and daughter; for all her heroic energy, Amanda has no power to give her daughter a better life, and the spark of love between Laura and the gentleman caller is snuffed out, almost before it can begin to flicker.
All of this is captured with a rare and beautiful precision in Jemima Levick’s new production for Dundee Rep, which benefits from three magnificent central performances from Robbie Jack as Tom, Millie Turner as Laura, and the great Irene Macdougall as a robust, creative and passionately maternal Amanda. The production is particularly brilliant in using a scruffy old microphone, and projected typewritten text, to capture Tom’s complex double role in the drama, as character and writer-observer; its most worrying aspect is the evidence of Dundee’s increasing tendency to “big set disease”, as designer Alex Lowde creates a heavily-built double stage, surrounded by pierced screen walls and a huge sliding shutter, that often evokes the Wingfields’ shabby back-lane apartment less well than a bare stage with a glitter-ball might do.
At the heart of this production, though, there are three performances worth travelling miles to see. And they are supported by a splendid cameo from Thomas Cotran as the gentleman caller who cannot replace the love that Tom is about to remove from Laura’s life – a love abandoned that nonetheless continues to haunt him, down all the long years.