the glass menagerie kate oflynn and seth numrich by johan persson
Kate O'Flynn as Laura and Seth Numrich as the Gentleman Caller. Photo: Johan Persson

“What is going to become of us? What is the future?” cries Amanda Wingfield. Having “put up a solitary battle all these years”, Tennessee Williams’ inimitable matriarch fears for her grown-up children, who still share her cramped apartment in St Louis. Shy and limping from childhood polio, Laura faces the very real prospect of spinsterhood. And Tom is becoming, like his absent father, too fond of drink.

The future is a worrying prospect in Williams’ breakthrough play, which was modelled on his own life and family. It was first performed in 1944 but set in 1937, when “the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind”, a description that resonates strongly with our own uncertain times.

Amanda still believes in American self-determination, in making something of oneself. She chastises Laura for calling herself crippled: “I’ve told you never, never to use that word.” But Amanda lives in the past, recounting golden memories of her genteel upbringing in the South.

The arrival of the Gentleman Caller is a rush of fresh air through the stale apartment. He is confident and robust where Laura is as fragile as the glass animals she collects. As Tom says in his prologue, “I am using this character as a symbol; he is the long-delayed but always-expected something that we live for.”

Tom is both protagonist and narrator, participant and observer. John Tiffany’s terrific production at the Edinburgh International Festival — seen on Broadway in 2013 — draws out the artifice and unrealism of the play. This is no period piece. There are passages of pure music and stylised choreography, throbbing piano and strings from composer Nico Muhly. In Bob Crowley’s design, the apartment itself is a glass menagerie: three hexagonal platforms over a dark, reflective pool. But what is real and what illusion?

Michael Esper is a dark, moody Tom to Seth Numrich’s sparkling Gentleman Caller. Kate O’Flynn plays Laura as a brittle girl who is seemingly lost in a fantasy, yet feels love as keenly as anyone. But Cherry Jones as Amanda carries the show. Born in Paris, Tennessee, you feel Jones has lived Amanda’s story, so vivid are her highs and lows, her fierce love and final despair.

To August 21, eif.co.uk

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