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Sunday, Sept. 23, 2001

In what a fragile balance we hang

Williams' 'Glass Menagerie' crosses time, language and borders

Special to The Japan Times

When it formed in 1993, Theater Project Tokyo declared its aim of investigating the essence and affirming the relevance of contemporary theater through innovative reinterpretations of classic plays for modern audiences.

In choosing for its latest production Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie," now running at the Benisan Pit Theater on the left bank of the Sumida River in downtown Ryogoku, it could hardly have selected a more fitting piece. With its themes of individual alienation and family disintegration, the play, though written by an American in 1944 and set in the 1930s Midwest, is particularly significant to audiences here at the start of the 21st century.

The play opens with each member of the Wingfield family -- former Southern Belle Amanda Wingfield (Orie Sato) and her reclusive adult children Laura (Yasuko Tomita) and Tom (Toru Yamamoto) -- smoldering in a cramped apartment in St. Louis, each dissatisfied with their current condition and, in their various ways, trying to escape into fantasy. For Tom, a shoe-factory worker and would-be poet, this means all-night cinemas and alcohol. For Amanda, an abandoned wife and single mother, it is her past glory as every young man's fancy. And for Laura, a painfully shy young woman crippled from childhood, it is her glass menagerie -- a collection of small, ornamental glass animals.

Into this stagnant world steps Jim O'Connor (Minosuke), a visitor who, it seems, may be the answer to all the family's prayers. A former high school friend, current colleague of Tom's and always the object of Laura's adoration, he is not only a handsome symbol of vitality for all the Wingfields but a potential solution to their situation. Tom, the family breadwinner, would be free to pursue his own life, as he so desperately wishes, if Laura is married and Amanda is free of worry for her.

While undoubtedly an all-American drama, full of references to the hallmarks of high school and the Great Depression, from a seat in the stalls it's as though there's no gap in time or geography between the 1930s Midwest and the Japan outside the theater's door. The play's themes, it seems, are eternal.

Like Japanese kyoiku-mama (education-freak mothers), Amanda dreams of success for her children, pushing them to typing or business school to improve their chances. And like many young Japanese hikikomori (recluses) today, Tom and Laura live a listless existence, believing that one day someone, somehow, will appear to transport them to a better life.

Communications issues also are explored. As relationships in the Wingfield family disintegrate after it is discovered that Jim is already engaged to be married, we see how each member hoards their own sad, secret thoughts in much the same way many Japanese families do today.

In the program notes, the play's American director, Robert Allan Ackerman, describes Williams' drama as "a play about the destruction of people's dreams and wishes, and a depiction of the process of destruction."

Ackerman regards the Wingfields as sensitive people, delicate and distinctive, which explains their inability to cope in the ordinary world and endure their alienated lives. He suggests that "The Glass Menagerie" seeks to show "the difficulty artists and artistic-minded people have in living among 'ordinary others.' "

The play, which propelled Williams to instant stardom, bears haunting similarities to the author's own personal life. Laura is partially lame and emotionally fragile; Williams' sister was reduced to dependency after undergoing a lobotomy to treat recurring paranoia and neuroses. Amanda was abandoned by her husband and is a loving but nagging mother; Williams' father was emotionally unavailable, and his mother smothered her children. The play's hero, Tom, is a frustrated writer trapped in an unfulfilling job; Williams was pushed by his father into a warehouse job and wrote at night.

From his own experiences, Williams created a work of universal relevance. The appropriateness of its revival here is heightened by the sure, positive performances of the Japanese cast and a script skillfully translated into Japanese by Yushi Odajima, who is known for his translations of Shakespeare's works. When the curtain came down I felt, quite simply, it is a play that is necessary to see both here and now.

"The Glass Menagerie" runs till Sept. 30 at the Benisan Pit Theater, a 5-minute walk from Morishita Station on the Toei Shinjuku and Oedo lines. Tickets 7,000 yen. Show starts at 7 p.m., except Sept. 23 and 30 at 2 p.m. only; Sept. 26 and 29 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Closed Sept. 25. For more information, call (03) 3634-1351 or fax (03) 3634-1352.

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