Preview: Through the glass darkly

By Dionne Christian

Tennessee Williams' Glass Menagerie explores a man's memories of a mother who wanted to make her children perfect. Dionne Christian reports.

Richard Knowles, Antonia Prebble, Elizabeth Hawthorne and Edmund Wright in rehearsal for The Glass Menagerie. Photo / Natalie Slade
Richard Knowles, Antonia Prebble, Elizabeth Hawthorne and Edmund Wright in rehearsal for The Glass Menagerie. Photo / Natalie Slade

Given the choice between a more lucrative role in a television series and a lead in a stage play, many actors would opt for the former. But Antonia Prebble says the chance to star in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie was too tempting to turn down so she withdrew from the running for a part in an Australian television series to appear in Auckland Theatre Company's latest production.

While Prebble has been steadily accumulating stage credits, she remains best known for her television roles as the scheming Loretta West on Outrageous Fortune, in the children's fantasy series Mirror Mirror, and more recently as legal secretary Jane March in the thriller The Blue Rose.

It looked as if things had fallen neatly into place when she landed a movie role with filming dates that would allow her to appear in the play. Then the option of a TV series was mooted and Prebble did consider it but that would have meant withdrawing from the play.

"But I really, really wanted to do the play because there are few opportunities to work on material like this which is so good and rich."

If she believed in signs and portents, there's a strong one in The Glass Menagerie. Her character, Laura Wingfield, was nicknamed "blue roses" at school, which mirrors the name of her most recent TV show.

"I guess there may be people who aren't familiar with the play and will wonder if the line was put in as some sort of 'cross-pollinating' reference," she laughs.

Awarded Best Play in 1945 by the New York Drama Critics' Circle and acclaimed as Williams' first great Broadway success, The Glass Menagerie is a modern classic frequently revived and retold but it is actually a re-worked version of one of Williams' short stories.

Set in St Louis in the 1930s, aspiring poet Tom Wingfield (Edwin Wright) puts his dreams on hold to work in a shoe warehouse so he can support his mother Amanda (Elizabeth Hawthorne) and emotionally fragile sister, Laura (Prebble).

Fearing Laura's delicate temperament will mean she is in constant need of looking after, Amanda decides she and Tom must find Laura a husband who will act as her protector. Goaded by his mother, Tom finds a gentleman caller (Richard Knowles) to try to coax Laura from her private world but the family soon discover dreams are easily shattered.

Williams' own family circumstances inspired the story. Prebble says when she was reading about the playwright's life, she learned about his older sister, Rose, who was committed to a mental hospital and diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. Rose later underwent a lobotomy and spent much of the remainder of her 86 years in hospital. "But Laura isn't Rose," says Prebble. "She is her own person.

"Yes, I think she is very fragile but it comes from an incredible sensitivity.

"She has a disability and from an early age she has picked up on the feeling that she is not good enough for her mother, that she doesn't fit with the ideal of what a daughter should be like. She has never been able to feel accepted and loved. She wants everyone to be happy and when they're not, she blames herself. She digests everything that happens in her family and is constantly buffeted by the people and events in her life."

ATC artistic director Colin McColl didn't want to direct the play, partly because he needed to focus on plans for the company's new premises, but also because he didn't feel he was the right person. "I've directed Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof three times and I think my style might be quite brash. This is a more poetic play and I thought it was time to see someone else's work."

McColl thought American guest director Jef Hall-Flavin would be perfect to take the reins. Hall-Flavin is the executive director of the Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and has worked in New Zealand before.

Despite being immersed in the works of Williams for the past six years, he has never directed The Glass Menagerie. He first came across the work at high school in his home town of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, and says it was a life-changing experience which helped confirm his decision to work in theatre. "I was 14 and when you're that age, you don't know how good the writing is or why you like it so much or why it makes an impression; it just does and it is good. I like classic plays - Shakespeare and Greek plays - and while I have worked on contemporary ones, these are the plays you always come back to because the playwrights are writing about something larger than oneself."

Hall-Flavin sees The Glass Menagerie as a modern work, partly because it puts the raw emotions and machinations of family life centrestage and because it references music and the visual arts so strongly. Those elements, along with colour, light and AV projection, will play a powerful role in his version of the story, which he sees as very much about Laura.

"What is the play called? Whose glass menagerie is it? Laura is the most important role because she is the catalyst and she has to be portrayed carefully. No one wants to sit for two-and-a-half hours watching a victim; they have to be able to empathise with Laura in order to engage with the story."

He feels Laura is often too melodramatic or airy, but says Prebble had an innate understanding of what motivated the character. Yet it is often the mother, Amanda Wingfield, frequently described as over-bearing and dominating, who occupies most attention. Hall-Flavin credits this to the remarkable performance given by Laurette Taylor, who originated the role.

Hawthorne aims to show more about what has formed Amanda's views so watchers can better understand and empathise with the character. "She adores her 'precious children' but everything in her life is done in a very conservative and conforming way. She is trying to squish round pegs into square holes, to make her children something they are not. As a mother, I utterly relate to her and while it pains me to say, I think I'm a little bit like her. You want to fix things for your children, to make everything all right for them."


Performance

What: The Glass Menagerie

Where and when: Selwyn Theatre, Kohimarama, May 16 to June 8

- NZ Herald

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