Presented by State Theatre Company of SA
Reviewed Tuesday 8th May 2012
The famous ‘memory play’, written by Thomas Lanier ‘Tennessee’ Williams in 1944, is getting another outing, this time under the direction of Artistic Director, Adam Cook, his final work as a director in what is now his final year with the company. Cook is going out on a triumphal high note with this production.
This work is semi-autobiographical as the Williams family moved to St. Louis and lived in a boarding house for a while. His father was against his chosen career as a writer, but his mother was supportive. Although from Ohio, his mother gave the impression of a Southern belle. His sister, Rose, referenced in the play by the nickname given to Laura by Jim, ‘Blue Roses’ was a fragile and mentally ill young woman who was eventually lobotomised. In the play, Williams writes his father out of the story but draws heavily on his mother and sister, and the location. He is representing himself, of course, in the storyteller, Tom, his own real name, the narrator of the play and one of the characters.
Tom Wingfield looks back seven years to the winter and spring of 1937, when he was still living at home with his mother and sister in a tenement in St. Louis and working in the warehouse of a shoe factory, writing poems whenever he could find a spare moment. This is a far cry from his mother, Amanda’s youth, growing up in the deep South, surrounded by servants and admirers. In spite of the attention from a host of planters’ sons, who all went on to successful lives, she chose to marry a telephone worker. That at least, is how she tells the story. Only a large picture of him on the wall remains as a reminder of her husband, who left home seventeen years before the time that Tom is recalling.
Amanda now tries to reclaim that gentile past, living through her children but ignoring the reality of their situation. Even the ugly steel fire escape outside is thought of as a veranda. She constantly insists that her daughter, Laura, should be expecting gentlemen callers at any moment, but none ever arrive. Laura had a bout of pleurosis as a child and had to wear a leg brace, leaving her now with a limp, suffering extreme shyness, and seeing herself as a cripple. When Amanda pressures Tom into bringing home an unsuspecting workmate to meet Laura she imagines that everything will miraculously change for the better.
She is unprepared for what happens when Jim O’Connor, Laura’s first gentleman caller, arrives for supper. Unbeknownst to all, Jim is the boy that Laura loved from afar in school, the boy most likely to succeed, but who did not. He revels in the fact that Laura remembers him in his heyday at school and he helps to overcome her shyness and lack of self-confidence as they sit together after dinner, until he realises why he has been invited
The Wingfields are each engaged in some form of escapism: Amada into the memories of her past and her attempts to rebuild it through Laura, Tom in his nightly trips to the cinema, and the nearby Paradise bar, and Laura into her own little world, inhabited by the crystal animals in what Amada refers to as her glass menagerie.
At the beginning, Victoria Lamb’s set comes excitingly to life, everything rising in all directions, and transforms into the home of the Wingfield family. The expectation that this ability to effect change would become a feature of the production, however, was not fulfilled. The visual changes during the performance were then left to Mark Pennington’s very varied and moody lighting design, referencing film noir in its intricacy. v’s subtly evocative score, intrically entwined with the action, reinforces the dreamlike atmosphere of Tom’s memories made corporeal.
Anthony Gooley plays Tom, in the dual role as narrator in the present, and as his younger self in the past. Gooley does a fine job in the role, switching between the two emotional ranges, that of the quieter older man, looking back, reminiscing, with mixed feelings of sadness, melancholy and guilt at abandoning his sister, and as the younger man, filled with anger, frustration, and ambition.
Deidre Rubenstein, as Amanda, gives us everything that we expect to see in that manic-depressive, overbearing mother, browbeating and alienating her children in the firm belief that she is only doing what is best for them, although letting us see that she is, in fact, subconsciously trying to recreate and relive the past vicariously through them, attempting to make them into what she never became. Rubenstein switches between delirious highs one moment and unbridled fury the next, taking it as a personal attack on herself whenever her machinations go astray.
The very best part of this production, for me, was the extended scene between Amanda and Jim, played by Nic English and Kate Cheel. Throughout this incredibly emotional scene one could have heard a pin drop. These two exceptional actors held the audience in thrall. English’s Jim still carries that air of once being the centre of attention, tinged with a touch of quietness in the knowledge that this time is past. He shows this in his conversation with Tom, suggesting that Tom join him by enrolling in courses to further himself. English displays the pleasure that Jim gets when he finds that Laura remembers him and still shows a degree of admiration for him.
Cheel’s Laura is a masterpiece in understatement as she goes from being embarrassed and terrified at meeting Jim again, to coming out of her shyness in the easy, comfortable situation that he creates as they talk, eventually revealing her true feelings for him. Her shyness and self-consciousness seem to evaporate in the warmth of English’s gentleness and understanding as Jim, encouraging her to go far outside her comfort zone and dance with him. The change in her is enormous, but English and Cheel make it not only believable, but inevitable. The final moments of the scene tear at the heart strings in the hands of these two wonderful young performers.
This is definitely one of the best things that we have seen from State Theatre in recent years and a highly successful farewell effort from Adam Cook. Don’t delay if you want to get a ticket.
Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Arts Editor, Glam Adelaide.
Venue: Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, King William Road, Adelaide
Season: to 26th May 2012
Duration: 2hrs 20mins (incl. interval)
Tickets: Adults $49/concession $42/under 30 $29
Bookings: BASS 131 246 or on line here