It begins in darkness, with quiet church bells ringing far away. A single flame sparks up from a lighter. Slowly, hundreds of small hanging glass orbs illuminate the set of the Guthrie Theater production of The Glass Menagerie (now playing through October 27). Tom Wingfield (Remy Auberjonois) leans over the ledge of his apartment’s fire escape with a cigarette and begins his reflection on his family’s efforts towards financial stability during the Depression.
As he calls the audience into the realm of his memory, he transitions from the narrator into the younger version of himself. Unlike the typical fog associated with memory, Tom’s recollection of vivid setting and detailed dialogue makes us forget that we are in his memory at all. Only when he stops to observe a scene from the audience or the characters freeze mid-sentence do we recall its origin.
Immersed in his mind, we uncover the raw authenticity of living with his strong-willed mother Amanda (Jennifer Van Dyck) and introverted sister Laura (Carey Cox). Tensions build as Tom and Amanda fail to reconcile their polar opposite personalities, resulting in frequent fights and sometimes unhealthy coping methods. These moments of tension are paired with animated dialogue and strong emotion, alluding to the possibility that bad memories are often more dramatic to us than good ones.
Director Joseph Haj distinguishes this production over others by incorporating his own creative twists, particularly in character development. He envisioned Amanda as an embodiment of Southern grit and maternal moxie, expectations that Van Dyck far exceeds with her perpetual urgency and garrulous habits. Yet even while she scolds about good posture, proper eating, and prayers, her overbearing actions are merely a front for unwavering love for her children.
Laura’s character has her own underlying implications as well, namely her conflict between choosing sociability or solitude. Cox not only succeeds in capturing Laura’s complexities for herself, but projects it onto the audience as well. We swoon with Laura as her gentleman caller Jim (Grayson DeJesus) sweeps her off her feet, and we sink in our seats when he isn’t as perfect as he seems. While he does encourage confidence and conviction for Laura, Jim’s character also reveals some unsavory qualities. And yet, perhaps because of Jim’s overriding charm or Laura’s innocent romanticism, we want nothing more than for the two characters to be together.
Haj’s vision for Tom is based on a need for escape, a thirst that Tom is unable to quench. Auberjonois perfectly captures the tension that occurs when being the family’s breadwinner stifles personal yearnings for adventure and success. The only aspect that confuses our perception of his youthful zest is the actor’s older age, particularly in comparison with his “older” sister who is in fact played by a younger actress. Tom’s quick temper and defensive responses, though fitting to the age of his character, don’t feel cohesive with the actor himself. Nevertheless, his ability to reflect Tom’s inner spirit is outstanding.
Our inside view into Tom’s reflection prompts us to consider topics of identity, love, sacrifice, and family. He recalls with fondness the times of joy and underlying unity, yet he remains fixated on his regrets. When he brings us to the play’s agonizing but true-to-life ending, the final minutes affirm the reality that memories can be a haunting reminder of the unresolved moments in our lives.