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The Glass Menagerie

Review by Sean McQuaid 

The Glass Menagerie is one of the greatest plays ever written. Granted, academics, critics and audiences have been saying that since its 1945 debut, but it bears repeating. Tennessee Williams’ semi-autobiographical portrait of the disintegrating Wingfield family is just as poetic, funny and poignantly haunting now as it was all those decades ago, and director Robert Tsonos does right by this classic in its latest revival at the Watermark Theatre.

Unlike some Watermark productions, the action here is largely confined to the stage as opposed to the aisles and balconies; the occasional exception is Tom Wingfield (played by Joshua Browne), a subtle choice that works well since as narrator (and de facto proxy for the playwright) he operates on a uniquely metadramatic level. It makes sense that the only character speaking directly to the audience also moves amongst the audience, and it reinforces both his connection with us and his dreamlike detachment from the story’s events, which for Tom are a distant memory.

The Watermark’s thrust stage has its players surrounded on three sides by spectators, so the varied, conflicting sight lines make it tricky to arrange the set and blocking in ways that don’t obscure some of the action for at least a portion of the audience. That’s hard to avoid in this space, though, and moments of visual obstruction in my particular seat were few enough to be only a minor irritant on opening night.

Williams repeatedly, explicitly reminds us that the story we’re being told is a memory. Tsonos echoes this in various ways, including William Layton’s set design. The handsome apartment set's “walls” are really a skeletal echo of same: a transparent wooden frame with enlarged vintage photographic city-scape backdrops visible behind it, a suitably impressionistic space made charmingly concrete by furniture and props such as the titular decorative glass animal figurines.

“In memory,” says Tom, “everything seems to happen to music.” As such, this play is ideal for Watermark’s commissioning of original musical scores by Leo Marchildon for its productions this season. It’s a welcome bonus too seldom seen in PEI theatre, and Marchildon’s warm, wistful, occasionally jazzy soundtrack enriches the overall mood and flavour of the piece.

A strong cast ties it all together nicely. Browne seems a bit rushed by times, a trait perhaps contributing to the company’s rare moments of uncertainty regarding cues or lines, but his brooding, restless energy suits the trapped, frustrated Tom. Gracie Finley strikes a satisfyingly tragicomic tone as Tom’s overbearing, delusional mother Amanda, often funny and always sad as the faded southern belle trying to pair up her introverted daughter Laura (Leah Pritchard) with Tom’s sunny co-worker Jim (a gregariously charming Daniel Briere).

Pritchard is particularly fine as the fearful, reclusive Laura, her skittish body language and halting vocalizations sketching the character vividly, and powerfully expressive even when she’s not moving or talking. Her face alone speaks volumes, whether it’s a glimmer of potential joy in conversation with Jim or the shattering heartache that follows.

The Glass Menagerie repeatedly depicts happiness as fleeting or illusory or both, like the “brief, deceptive rainbows” evoked by the script; but there’s beauty in rainbows, however transient, and this production captures the timeless beauty of Williams’ story with crystal clarity.

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