Alright, reader(s), I disclaim: I recognize that it’s not really fair to compare these two shows. I saw Snow Geese while it was still in previews, and it’s a new play so I’m sure its still evolving. Glass Menagerie is a classic by one of our greatest American playwrights—it had a warm up run at ART, and its been up and running and racking up accolades for a while now. But they felt appropriate to consider together for a couple reasons. First, they are both haunted family plays in which past, present, and future collide. As a result there is some real thematic overlap. Second, they both beg a similar question: that pesky “why this play, why now?” Finally, I think the fact that one succeeds where the other does not is really rather illuminating.
Snow Geese is undeniably a Chekhov parody. Not a parody “ha ha,” but so much of it—the title, the family dynamics, the socio-economic situation all seem to be quite obviously in imitation of Chekhov. This time, however, the play is set in America on the eve of its intervention in World War I. But there’s still the family doctor and the maid and the soldier and the bickering brothers and the killing of birds, and the fact that estate must be sold.
Glass Menagerie, meanwhile, has at this point almost become a parody of itself. The minute that southern accent shows up on stage, it’s hard not to feel as if what you’re seeing is imitating a version of the Tennessee Williams play that you have burned in your brain. (Remarkably this is true even if you’ve never seen it performed, which I hadn’t.)
So in both instances a lot of “why’s” get asked.
Snow Geese, unfortunately, does not seem to answer these whys. There is a lot of lovely work happening with the actors. The costumes and set are utterly gorgeous. And don’t get me wrong. I love Chekhov. I’ll never balk at seeing “another Seagull.” But this feels like empty Chekhov. It’s about families and secrets and mourning and money. Well, mostly money. But there is little in the play to convince me of the relevance of this family’s money problems or grieving process. It feels more like an exercise in adaptation than an attempt to use certain conventions to explore themes that might be universal.
Glass Menagerie, on the other hand, seems viscerally relevant. Now, a large part of this is William’s language. Certain phrases seem to just come around a corner and stop you in your tracks. But it also due to some incredible acting, especially on the part of the women. The production really highlights the desperation with which these characters love and fight for/with each other. And by creating a very specific memory aesthetic, the hauntings of the play—the father who’s disappeared, Laura’s memory—are so strong they evoke an almost tangible ache. I didn’t necessarily need some of the more “directed” moments—Tom falling backwards onto the stage, dragged in by his memory; Laura popping up out of the couch–they felt a little forced. And John Lahr makes a really interesting argument–that they misinterpret and distract from William’s ultimate point–in his piece in the New Yorker.
But it was still an incredibly moving play. And if I had to diagnose why it was successful and Snow Geese was not, I would say that it was the love. In Snow Geese, for the most part, you don’t really sense the characters dreams, or their love for each other. So you don’t understand why it would be hard for them to leave each other, and you don’t feel that affected when they finally do. But in Glass Menagerie this love was palpable. It was what fueled the fights—not years of resentment or antipathy (thought that was certainly there too). This was why the characters seemed so trapped, and why when they finally brought themselves to leave it was both a moment of liberation and a moment of tragedy.