The Glass Menagerie. By Tennessee Williams. Directed by Eamon Flack. Belvoir Street Theatre. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre. Until May 7. canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700.
Pamela Rabe joins an illustrious company of Australian actresses who have created definitive interpretations of Tennessee Williams' enduring creations of complex and troubled female characters. In Eamon Flack's production of The Glass Menagerie currently playing at the Canberra Playhouse, Rabe's magnificent performance of matriarch Amanda Wingfield is as stellar as recent Sydney Theatre Company portrayals of Blanche DuBois by Cate Blanchett in A Streetcar Named Desire and of Violet Venable by Robyn Nevin in Suddenly, Last Summer. Chameleon-like, Rabe charts the rollercoaster ride of emotions from autocratic matriarch to despairing and dejected mother to the fanciful, frivolous Southern belle, reliving her debutante days when gentleman caller Jim O'Connor (Harry Greenwood) arrives for dinner. Rabe's tour de force performance is a magnet to our hearts and our minds.
Rabe illuminates the stage as a single Southern mother, desperately struggling to care for her shy, insecure and pleurosis affected daughter, Laura, beautifully played with vulnerable fragility by Rose Riley, and her brother, the sensitive and tortured would-be poet Tom. Luke Mullins in the role acts as both the narrator of the play and the character of Tom, living out his past. This is a performance of complexity, contradiction and depth, perfectly depicting Williams' personal struggles with identity and ambition as expressed in his symbolic and sentimental memory play.
Tom, the narrator, states quite clearly in his address to the audience that the play is not realistic. Live video projection designed by Sean Bacon evokes the glorious age of black and white cinema, underscored by recognisable movie themes and projected onto screens on either side of the stage. Williams' love of the era of 1940s cinema conjures a romantic notion of fantasy and illusion against the confronting reality of Michael Hankins' authentic design of the claustrophobic and neglected Wingfield apartment, atmospherically lit by Damien Cooper with a keen sense of the play's shifting moods. Stefan Gregory's composition and sound design entices the audience into a dreamscape world that offers Williams' entrapped characters escape from the cruel and bitter realities of an unfulfilled existence. In the real world that Amanda inhabits with her children, dreams cannot come true, unless, like the unseen father, one deserts home and family, as Tom is desperate to do to stop "the boiling inside". In the long and climactic scene between Laura and Jim at the end of the play, O'Connor offers a motivational call for hope and confidence.
Director Flack's finely detailed production lures us into Williams' autobiographical revelation. This is as fine a production of The Glass Menagerie as you are ever likely to see. A brilliant cast exposes lives as fragile as Laura's glass menagerie, as easily shattered as a single piece of her treasured collection, as precious as an elusive dream and irreplaceable if broken. Atmosphere envelops every moment, at times poetically haunting, at times emotionally volatile, sometimes gentle and loving, occasionally humorous and always wafting through the darkness to embrace us with our own dreams and hopes and fears. Truth and illusion are powerfully and poignantly mirrored in Williams' The Glass Menagerie.