Fragility. This play almost within a play (a memory play) is very like Vanity Fair — the characters almost become puppet-like as they shuffle on in the hands of the older narrator remembering his younger self and family. Paul Hilton as the older Tom writes his characters on and off the stage, surrounded by dimly lit rooms, almost waiting rooms. He could almost be mistaken for a skulking Tennessee Williams too reflecting on his family circumstances.
Amy Adams is the grand Southern matriarch, Amanda Wingfield, lost in her recollections of her courting days when she was a rich and wealthy feted debutante and entertaining a deluge of ‘gentleman callers’ — 17 in one day! Neither the play nor her son have much sympathy for Amanda Wingfield, but Amy Adams does. This is a disappointed woman, whose husband, daughter and son have not promised what they delivered and whose men leave her to struggle on alone. Although she has a deeply controlling nature, Adams hints at Amanda’s fears and potential abuse — her charming husband was not so charming as he drank and went off and left her. Also what can a woman do when she has been trained to entertain and behave in certain ways, and is now living a life which does not need nor want those qualities? What happens when society changes around you and leaves you behind?
Tom Wingfield (younger) is directionless and feckless, played by Tom Glynn-Carney — he feels overcontrolled by his mother, no longer wanting his cow licks smoothed by his mother as his stylish father did; the pressure of being the sole breadwinner; of living up to his mother’s life on the plantations expectations (in a small, working class, somewhat seedy apartment) and in not being his father. Nor is he able to create romantic opportunities for his sister to encounter ‘gentleman callers’ — he asks a former schoolmate and up and coming co-worker to dinner, without knowing anything about him. The play hinges on his neglectful and sloppy attitude, his introspectiveness and lack of care for others or himself — he forgets to ask the dinner guest if he has a girlfriend, or indeed is going steady? Tom’s anger at not having anything, any space of his own manifests against his mother, who in reality is trying to be both mother and father and keep the family nourished somehow as economic disenfranchisement gnaws at their circumstances. They are all distracted by the seedy or life-filled dance hall opposite — clashing with the genteelness Amanda wants to create.
Older and younger Tom are dreamers, longing for escape from the banality of their lives — in writing and in becoming a merchant seaman, of being free from family commitments and responsibility put upon them too soon. An escape younger Tom already carries out by staying out ‘at the movies’ all night and failing in his warehouse job duties; by smoking and not saving the money for his family. There is a vacuum created by the loss of the father of the house which Tom is unable and unwilling, (and perhaps shouldn’t be expected) to fulfill.
Laura Wingfield (Lizzie Annis) is portrayed as an oversized girl here, almost like a giant Alice — from dress to movement; almost neurodiverse in her obsessive collecting of glass ornaments and in her ugly childlike dresses and socks. Beset by crippling shyness and physical impairments from pleurosis, she avoids her mother’s plans to empower her and give her autonomy, resists any chance of earning her own living or having her own life outside the home, of being an adult. Any challenge makes her physically sick. She isn’t seen by others and finds it hard to connect with others. She retreats into a world of make-believe glass characters and depends on her mother to do the things she wants to avoid — which are many. Yet she is capable of finding joy in a museum or hothouse visit — perhaps she could be a museum attendant instead? (Fascinatingly the actress playing Laura has celebral palsy, adding a realness to Laura’s movements and fear of what others might be thinking or saying).
Chased by debts and unpaid bills, Amanda pushes her son into inviting a colleague home to meet his sister. But even then Tom cannot do this right. Laura realises that the colleague coming home is an idolised former school fellow and hides in sickness. However the electricity fails (Tom has failed to attend to paying the bill as he does every detail or care) and by candlelight Laura and the gentleman caller (Jim O’Connor) chat, reminisce, dance and kiss before his big reveal that he is engaged to be married — much more than going steady and won’t be calling again. Nor is he the gentleman he seems to be.
In other productions we can really feel for Laura — her pain, introversion and shame as her mother attempts to mold her into a version of herself. Here we have great sympathy for Amanda — she did work in the past (but doesn’t seem to now); she makes excruciatingly unsuccessful phone calls to her friends to get them to renew subscriptions to romance magazines (and presumably earns a little money that way, if she can). She depends on her son, who doesn’t seem to care — who forgets to pay the bills; whose daughter is too fragile to go to work in a regular way or to do more domestically than wash the dishes, who falls on her way to ask for groceries to be put on their tab; who has to ask others to do what they should and to negotiate her way through debts and too little money for necessities. She too longs for escape — she does this through stories, a fantasy of what might have been, a recalling of past glamour and glories — her whole current life is in fact a ‘memory play’ and it is her talent for story telling that she passes on to her son. (He doesn’t credit her for this!) We notice how she comes to life when the gentleman caller comes and she whips out her highly unsuitable ball dress, launching back into full entertaining and charm mode, revealing her longing for things to be other than they are. She outshines her daughter, which the play seems to find ridiculous — but can only appear sympathetic when this is really her main talent, all that she has been expected to do; her desire for the days when all men were dancing attendance on her and gathering flowers at her command, her whim. She seems to imply that her meeting her children’s father was done in a fever, of not listening to her parents sensible advice and in not being warned of what kind of man he was, until it was too late…
Victor Alli as Jim O’Connor adds a number of layers to the gentleman caller — he is both Irish and black and very charming. There is an excruciating scene when the mother waffles at him about planters and plantations, completely insensitive to him and who he is. Yet, he is all that could be wished for (a go-getter and self-educator, ambitious), and yet although he is able to coax Laura out of herself and her awkwardness — he too is a fantasy, another deception — he is going steady, he is engaged! Like the precious unicorn, Jim breaks Laura (another unique and special thing), and although she tries to eulogise the breakage of the unicorn’s horn, she is permanently damaged/changed by it. As an audience, Laura’s denied romance by someone who seemed so kind outwardly breaks us too.
Like the gentleman caller, father and son drift off — never to return. More slow burning than high emotion, this play hints at the grinding of poverty; the loss of expectations; the loss of friends and wider family support; the loss of love and how each character retreats into themselves and their circumstances; or refuses to face it, by running away. It also seems to hint at the uselessness of women who are not economic wage earners or well educated, or able to do what is expected of them by society, and of the pity of social groups that society moves on from, leaves behind and regroups around.
Any of the characters could be the focus — Tom (in his rage at his mother mothering him still and yet pushing him into being a replacement breadwinner) or Laura who cannot be who her mother was, and yet this time it is the avaricious fighter and snobbish fantasist Amanda who gains our sympathy, whose stories we fall in love with and want to hear more of; who we almost long to see restored to her rightful social place as a fine lady. Goodness she seems ready to run off with the gentleman caller herself! Yet how much of her stories are really the truth? Tom (younger and older) are clearly seen as the truth tellers in the play and yet they come across as neglectful and unkind as well as oppressed.
Overall a play about how memories are down played or storified (or deeply painful ones forgotten).. We never know what Tom thinks of himself for abandoning his family or how they got along after he was gone. For me it was like a Edward Hopper painting brought to life — the interior lives exposed; but quite a different kind of dreaming to Chekhov — here appearances matter more than truth and are, in their cherished fragility, shattered.