Like a foretaste of the sorcery that director John Tiffany installed into the West End last year with his astounding stage version of Harry Potter, there is magic in this revival of Tennessee Williams’ breakthrough play of 1944, a production first seen at the American Repertory Theatre in 2013.
Not that Michael Esper’s intense and tormented Tom, Williams’ loosely autobiographical hero, thinks he’s a magician. On the contrary. “I am the opposite of a magician,” he tells us during his lyrical preamble. “He gives you the illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”
Yet still, the way he introduces us to the characters of his past who haunt his memory, especially his sister Laura (Kate O’Flynn) and including his Southern belle mother Amanda (played by the Tennessee-born stage star Cherry Jones in a long overdue West End debut), is purest magic.
With an outstretched hand directed to the back of an apparently empty sofa, Tom pulls his sibling through the upholstery as if the piece of furniture is giving birth to her. Thereafter this show’s spell is cast by the more conventional theatre practises of acting, design and one of the most tenderly written scenes in the 20th-century canon.
You have to wait for it. It arrives after a good deal of slow-moving if crucial groundwork. All that is keeping Amanda and Laura from the streets of 1930s St. Louis, we learn, is the meagre shoe-factory wage earned by aspiring writer Tom. The family was long ago abandoned by his father, a telephone company worker who “fell in love with long distance.”
Bob Crowley’s design reflects that the cramped, dingy flat in which all the action takes place exists in the shadowy recesses of Tom’s mind. The rooms are suspended in darkness, and to one side there is a towering fire escape that soars into an abyss of black night air. The sense of claustrophobia is deepened by Jones’ overbearing Amanda, who constantly harks back to the courting etiquette of her youth – much to the amusement, and exasperation, of her adult children.
In Amanda’s day, a pretty girl need only wait at home for the inevitable gentleman caller. And so it shall be for Laura, insists Amanda. Only Laura – crippled by a shyness brought on by a defective leg for which she wore a brace as a child and which still makes her limp – receives no callers at all, let alone the gentlemanly kind.
In the face of such sobering truths, Jones’ Amanda grimly maintains her denial in the form of a carefree, girlish poise. It is an innocence that is as misplaced in this middle-aged woman as a lipsticked, high-healed knowingness is in a little girl. That’s the surface. Underneath, Jones also transmits a single-parent steel that reveals Amanda has much more understanding of her family’s predicament than her children give her credit for. Esper’s Tom, meanwhile, is a maelstrom of conflicting emotions: love, loyalty and ultimately fury at the emotional blackmail used by his mother to keep him – and his income – in the home.
O’Flynn’s performance blossoms – as does the play – in that heart-lifting-and-rending scene where, against all expectation, a gentleman actually calls. To placate his mother, Tom has invited his fellow factory worker Jim to dinner. He is played by Brian J Smith with a pitch-perfect chivalry and the endearing confidence of one who is bent on self-improvement. For wilting wallflower Laura, the effect is that of a summer shower. The tremulous voice becomes more certain, the bearing no longer apologetic. The transition is spellbinding. And like the best Glass Menageries, this one is emotionally shattering.