Every moment is a fragile one.
Memory comes to us in fragments, with our subconscious suturing the gaps to form a blurry whole, almost dream-like in our minds. In that same vein, there is an unmistakable air of the surreal in memory plays such as Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, a work wrought with sentiment, constructed with an artifice and nostalgia that seems to suspend the entire evening in a crystal ball, peering into a precious memory as fragile as glass.
Adapted countless times since its premiere in 1944, local theatre company Pangdemonium (known more for their contemporary works) has made a bold move to bring this classic to life, finally making it to stage after a two year delay due to the pandemic, as director Tracie Pang leads a diverse group of actors and her talented creative team. Choosing to respect the literary strength of Williams’ writing, this version of The Glass Menagerie opts to maintain the entirety of the original script, keeping its Southern setting, complete with the predominant accents and attitudes of the era.
Yet, in this staging, perhaps the most pertinent change is in its choice to cast a group of actors from diverse cultural and racial backgrounds to play the Wingfields. Pangdemonium is no stranger to this, last doing this with The Mother, and physical differences across the cast members is clear. In any other script, such a casting might be disadvantageous, but here, the choice to cast such physically disparate actors has quite the opposite effect, highlighting how isolated and embroiled each character is in their own dreams and desires.
Throughout, the cast’s onstage chemistry with each other remains constant, and for all their differences, the Wingfields still feel like a believable dysfunctional family, knowing each other intimately, yet tenuous in their ties and familial obligations. Coming together as a single family unit, the Wingfields are agitated, never satisfied or finding a moment’s peace in each other’s presence, building up a mountain of pressure as the play’s events unfold.
Jamil Schulze fluidly shifts between his dual role as narrator and character, taking on a mature, more resigned air when he opens the play and establishes its oneiric qualities, almost like he’s looking back with regret at his past. As the character Tom, Jamil embodies youthful restlessness and a quick-temper, always ready with a sarcastic quip, and constantly, uncomfortably yearning to leave the space to watch his movies, seamless in his transitions.
Catherine Grace Gardner delivers exactly what’s required of Amanda Wingfield, confident from the moment she steps out onstage as she displays the tyranny of matriarchy with all the poise and grace of a faded Southern belle. While she primarily possesses a suffocating presence, regaling the same story of her ‘seventeen gentleman callers’ in her youth over and over, and dominating scenes and conversations with faux cheeriness and presence, there is a deep emotional scar that Gardner wears as Amanda. It is one that throbs with pain as she reminisces over her once glorious past, tragicomic as she struggles to sell magazine subscriptions, and at times downright sad as she deludes herself into hopeless optimism for Laura’s dim marriage prospects, and Gardner deserves plaudits for juggling these complex emotions in her portrayal of Amanda.
Rounding up the Wingfield clan is Tom’s older sister Laura, where Inch Chua is by far the most surprising performer of the night. Inch is fully committed in her performance, physically embodying Laura by walking with a distinct limp and speaking in a meek voice barely loud enough to be heard over her brother and mother. Inch’s portrayal of Laura is almost pathetic, complicating the character as she provokes both pity and exasperation at her crippling inferiority complex and physical disability. Inch’s air of child-like innocence never leaves her, finding a pure delight with Laura’s collection of glass figurines, and a naive wish to run from society’s expectations of her.
Williams’ scenes are long and wordy, and always run the risk of wearing the contemporary audience’s patience thin. But Tracie has done well to honour Williams’ writing, bringing out their inherent power, and in spite of their length, the every scene contains constant forward momentum that ensures conversations progress the plot without feeling stuck in motion. This is especially clear once the play hits its stride during the dinner party, when Salif Hardie enters as Jim O’Connor, the gentleman caller. Considering his limited time onstage, Salif leaves a solid impact in his performance, adopting a jaunty persona, almost like a facade to mask Jim’s own fears of having peaked in high school. Compared to the Wingfields, Salif comes in like a breath of fresh air, optimism and high spirits seemingly able to blow away the weight of the Wingfields’ personal hangups, and give them new hope.
More importantly, all the tension built up over the course of the play finally pays off here, as each character so lost in their own world that they become blind and oblivious to each other’s personal agendas. Besides Amanda ramping up the Southern hospitality and Tom having not a single care about the charade, it is Jim and Laura’s interactions that lead to the play’s climax. Strung along by his warmth and constant encouragement, audience members feel for when Laura is finally coaxed out of her shell, and sense a genuine belief in the fragile girl that something just might come out of this rare meeting with her childhood crush, from the awkward-cute waltz scene, to the inadvertent kiss. Which is precisely why it hurts all the more when that momentary confidence comes crashing down as Jim admits the truth, and she regresses, more than ever, to her former, heartbreaking wisp of a human being.
Beyond the performance, The Glass Menagerie also displays Pangdemonium’s signature thoughtful design elements, excelling in symbolic and thematic significance. Eucien Chia’s set works as a single unite to produce the tension between reality and hazy memory, with wooden scaffolding surrounding the house and the fire escape, suggesting an outside world that is not yet fully constructed, where only the living room remains clear in Tom’s memory, filled with details from Laura’s glass menagerie, to the sofa with a pull-out chair, to the haunting picture of the absent Wingfield father, constantly watching over them even after his abandonment. A wall of screens hang above, where Genevieve Peck’s projections further propel the dream-like quality of the play, literally displaying blossoming blue roses when Laura mentions her nickname, and clips from classic black-and-white movies that enhance the old-timey atmosphere.
Each character’s costumes (designed by Leonard Augustine Choo), despite being of the same era, are distinct in their colour, shape and style to clearly differentiate one character’s personality from the other, where the clothing ensemble alone tells a complete story about the character’s journey and characteristics. Tom is constantly in disheveled shirts, speaking of his lackadaisical, aimless attitude, in contrast to Jim’s crisp, well-ironed suits. Amanda, in age-appropriate maroon knee-length skirt, holds a certain grandeur and class as she commands the room, while Laura, in cool coloured house dresses of the ’30s, feels unobtrusive, and almost glass-like, as is her constitution. Not to mention, these are beautiful clothes, and bring a touch of Broadway to Singapore. “In memory everything seems to happen to music,” and Jing Ng (Ctrl Fre@k)’s occasional, incidental sounds contribute to the nostalgic atmosphere that characterises the play, like ghosts haunting memory.
The Glass Menagerie also benefits from being the first play in Singapore since the COVID-19 pandemic to perform in a theatre at full capacity. With theatres operating at half capacity or less over the last two years, the effect of having a nearly full house is phenomenal, with the audience having experienced this family tragedy together in the same space. More than ever, we have realised how vulnerable and fragile life and relationships can be, and watching the play come to its end, we feel the simultaneous burst of sadness as Laura collapses into Amanda’s lap, and Tom regrets his leaving, bringing the evening to a close. We are complicit in these moments, strangers in the dark seated side by side, laughing together, gasping together, and applauding together as the last candle is blown out. The performance is a moment that is immortalised and captured in a cloudy, timeless bubble of memory, a moment that shows live theatre, against all odds, is unbreakable.
Photo Credit: Pangdemonium!
The Glass Menagerie plays from 11th to 27th March 2022 at Victoria Theatre. Tickets available from SISTIC