“For nowadays the world is lit by lightning!”

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All weekend I had been working on my book and meeting other deadlines; by afternoon today, I thought of staying home and continuing, instead of going to Budapest to see The Glass Menagerie (Üvegfigurák in Hungarian) at the Radnóti Színház. In the beginning of January, a colleague had told me about this production, and I had reserved a ticket, but now it seemed I couldn’t afford the time.

Then I thought: “What are you thinking? This is one of your favorite plays, you’ve been looking forward to it for a month, so go!”

I rushed out the door, got to the train just on time, and went to the play, the first play I have seen in Hungary. I have attended an opera and about six concerts, but no play until tonight. My expectations were high and low at once; I had never seen a production of The Glass Menagerie that I liked. I had read the play many times, from my early teenage years onward; I had imagined it on stage; yet actual performances (stage and film) had  disappointed me. They tried too hard; they forced the play into something it wasn’t. The dreamy, melancholic quality got lost. I liked John Malkovich as Tom, but that was it.

Tennessee William’s The Glass Menagerie is, in Tom’s words, a memory play, and the play itself is memory; the stage descriptions are as important (and at times as lyrical) as the lines. The plot seems simple: an impoverished and broken family contends with dreams. Amanda wishes for a gentleman caller for her daughter, Laura, who lives in her own world of glass animals and the Victrola. Tom, Laura’s brother, longs to escape from the trap of home. But the play has longer action, through Tom’s recollections.

This performance not only hit the right notes but surprised me. Tom (Ádám Porogi) was superb from the start; he came out onto the fire escape, spoke directly to us, and took us into the first scene. The stage set was the way I had imagined it, more or less, with screens that Tom opened and closed, and a semicircular cord curtain surrounding the dining room. The glass menagerie was in a glass case, and when Laura took her animals out, you could see them glitter in the light.

Tom was often on the sidelines, saying Amanda’s (and sometimes Laura’s) words just before she said them. This is not in the written play, but it worked perfectly. Sometimes it seemed like mockery, sometimes like old knowledge (he had heard his mother say these things so many times), sometimes like memory.

Rozi Lovas’s interpretation of Laura was the subtlest, funniest, and quirkiest I had seen. This wasn’t the Laura I had imagined over the years, but I loved her. When playing with her glass animals, she made squeaky voices; when not caught in her mother’s gaze, she flounced awkwardly before the mirror. This made her romantic disappointment all the more heartbreaking; she had shown more than usual to him, even sang with him for a few seconds (in a delightful duet), only to be let down and left behind.

Amanda (Adél Kováts) was frail, expressive, and magnificent, not the towering belle I had seen in productions before. She lived in fantasy, small to others but large to herself. She kept trying to gather up her dignity, kept losing it, kept gathering it again. I loved how she would throw things now and then at the portrait of her husband, the one who had fallen “in love with long distance.” She spoke quickly but melodically; she commandeered but knew her own defeat.

Jim (Dániel Viktor Nagy) was just right–ordinary, a bit carried away with himself, not a terrible person, but not capable of seeing what he had brought about.

The light was beautiful–dim light, bright light, green light, candlelight, changing and turning like the records in the Victrola.

But there was nothing like the catharsis at the end. I had not understood the final scene in this way until tonight. Down comes the rain; Tom gets drenched, and then he speaks from a later time, looking back. His mask has come off; throughout the play, he had tried to distance himself from his sister and mother and from the action; now he admitted that he could not leave Laura behind, that no matter where he went, he saw her. Ádám Porogi brought such rawness into this that it became, for me, the play’s recognition and reversal.

Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be! I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger–anything that can blow your candles out.

[Laura bends over the candles.]

For nowadays the world is lit by lightning! Blow out your candles, Laura–and so goodbye. …

[She blows the candles out.]

All of this was in Hungarian, but I could follow it; Tom’s final admission broke everything open, like the broken unicorn. I left full of the play, not only as I had read it, but as it was performed tonight. I am glad that this was my first play here; I don’t think I will forget it easily. Thanks to the Radnóti Színház for this exceptional performance.

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I added a paragraph and photo to this piece after posting it; later I corrected the quoted text.