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Thursday, Feb. 16, 2006

'THE GLASS MENAGERIE'

Awkward casting mutes plays impact


Special to The Japan Times

In "The Glass Menagerie" by Tennessee Williams, a classic story of youthful dissatisfaction, you'd expect to see a restless young actor dig into the role of Tom Wingfield and explore his frustration. It is surprising, then, that in the current production of the play at the New National Theatre, director Irina Brook, daughter of influential English contemporary theater director Peter Brook, has chosen to cast 56-year-old Katsumi Kiba in that role.

News photo
Tom Wingfield (Katsumi Kiba), Amanda (Midori Kiuchi) and Laura (Tomoko Nakajima) in Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie." PHOTO COURTESY OF NEW NATIONAL THEATRE

Brook says in the program that in her approach to the play she took particular note of a staging instruction by Williams that this play is "a tale of recollection." Presumably then, her bold casting leap stems from her interpretation of that phrase.

As befits a work of memory, the set designed by Brook's regular collaborator, Noele Ginefri, is more ethereal than real, with flesh-colored curtains screening three sides of the stage and sometimes acting as screens for projected images of actors or crystal animals. On this Ikea showroom-like stage, there's little to distract the audience's attention from the events being played out. And certainly, there's no hint of the play's Midwest setting, let alone of the cramped, 1930s apartment in which Williams imagined his drama taking place.

Feeling stifled by a routine of life at home and a boring job at a shoe factory, Tom's frustration manifests itself in arguments with his fussy mother, Amanda, and a dream of moving away and becoming a poet. Amanda, a Southerner with social aspirations, whose husband left years before, has her hopes pinned entirely on her children -- in particular on seeing her crippled daughter married off to a rich young gentleman.

Written when Willaims was 31, "The Glass Menagerie" (1945) was his first success and led to a series of hits on Broadway, including "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Though on one level this semi-autobiographical work appears to be mere situation drama, what makes "The Glass Menagerie" such a classic is its examination of a basic human dilemma: whether to settle for humdrum reality or to forgo security and strike out alone in pursuit of a dream. Williams' lyrical script allied his insightful observation of human nature to a universal metaphor.

In this version, though, credulity becomes strained when Tom -- who appears with gray hair at the start when he gives a monologue accompanied by the sounds of soft jazz -- steps back in time to his 20s looking the same -- more like Amanda's husband, and far too old to be Laura's younger brother. Introducing a casting anomaly like this to highlight the dysfunctions Williams was exploring may seem a novel interpretation. But in fact, with Tom sticking out like a sore thumb throughout, he simply never seems to fit in with the story at all.

Worse than that, it becomes increasingly difficult to comprehend the point of this production in terms of the very core of the work -- that of an angst-ridden young man with competing visions of his future. Because of Tom's incongruous casting, the other characters effectively become mere marionettes in his world of memories, each role being played out separately from any whole.

To damn with faint praise, if Brook aimed to create a recollection world in which feelings are remembered but not re-felt, then she succeeded. In the process, though, it feels as if the fundamental attraction of this play is lost -- namely the sizzling emotional dilemmas and timeless family discord that have made it a classic of modern drama.

When Williams wrote about family breakdown and disruption in "The Glass Menagerie," he was timelessly addressing important social issues of his day, and its success from the outset was due to its immediate relevance to people's daily lives. At the New National Theatre, though, I was left wondering why we should bother going to the theater at all if it is just to see an exercise in bittersweet nostalgia played out by a man so patently mellow and mature.

"The Glass Menagerie" runs till Feb. 26 at the New National Theatre, a 2-minute walk from Hatsudai Station on the Keio New Line. For more details, call the New National Theatre at (03) 5352-9999 or visit www.nntt.jac.go.jp

Nobuko Tanaka welcomes readers comments at nobukoipj@hotmail.com


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