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The Glass Cage
By Elyse Sommer
The Man Who Came to Dinner exemplifies the comic potential of this invaded home plot device. Two plays that I saw this past week illustrate its more serious dramatic potential: Nicky Silver's Three Changes (review), a new play, depicts the seismic change in the lives of a Manhattan couple resulting from a reunion with the man's brother that culminates in his moving in with them for a lengthy and unsettling stay. J. B. Priestley's The Glass Cage, the Mint Theater's latest production of a neglected play (not seen since its initial 1956 production until Priestley's son Thomas brought it to light for a British Priestley festival) turns the invader element into a triple threat by sending not one but three strangers into the tranquil home of a wealthy Toronto family.
The invaders, two brothers and a sisters are, like their curiously reluctant hosts, McBanes. But all McBanes are not alike. The siblings are from a branch that was long ago severed from the family tree.
The Toronto parlor that is the setting for The Glass Cage is in the comfortable home of the bible-thumping David (Gerry Bamman), his brother Malcolm (Jack Wetherall), sister Mildred (Robin Moseley) and daughter Elspie (Sandra Struthers-Clerc) . have ever met (or wanted to meet) the children of a renegade brother and his native Canadian wife (both deceased). Thus Jean McBane (Jeanine Seralles) and her brothers Angus (Saxon Palmer) and Douglas (Aaron Krohn) are indeed strangers to these very prim and proper Edwardians. They have been raised in poverty and their young adult lives have been quite different from that of their virtuous cousin Elspie and her minister-in-the-making beau John Harvey (Chad Hoeppner).
Naturally, as anyone who's seen Priestley's most famous play, An Inspector Calls, or Dangerous Corner, he was too much of a pro to let a play rely strictly on the country mouse/city mouse differences between the estranged factions of this family. Thus The Glass Cage is decidedly more complex. Priestley establishes an aura of tension and mystery even before the McBane outsiders enter the comfortably upholstered parlor, with Mildred and Malcolm's reluctance to finally meet their niece and nephews obviously not just caused by snobbery about their probable lack of refinement. Since the young people's visit is prompted by their having their own idea about signing a deed of transfer pertaining the the family business, it won't come as a surprise that any differences and confrontations are more likely to be as much, if not more, about money than manners. And so they are.
The aura of mystery notwithstanding, the audience sees the revelations tumbling from the cupboard marked "Family Secrets" a bit too quickly and obviously for this play to be quite the lost masterpiece one might hope for. But it does showcase Priestley's considerable dramaturgical skills and sensitivity to bourgeois hypocrisy and an expanding cultural landscape. His exposé of self-delusion has a smart double edge and and he dramatizes the clash of cultures by having the mixed race McBanes give their young cousin and the ministerial student a lively introduction to the pleasures of a less corseted life style. Of course, being produced by the Mint, with its commitment to not just retrieving forgotten plays from the theatrical dustbin but producing them with loving care, contributes to this play's still being a relevant and rewarding entertainment.
Director Lou Jacob has freshened up the dated aura by having set designer Roger Hanna remove the walls from the McBanes' stuffy Edwardian parlor and substitute an expressionistic industrial frame. It's not particularly attractive, but it serves its purpose of echoing the symbolism of the title theme and giving the play a more contemporary gloss.
The pleasure of the production also owes much to a fine cast. Since Priestley wrote this play as a starring vehicle for the Toronto's Crest Theater's three actor-founders (also 2 brothers and a sister) who he came to greatly admire during a book tour. Consequently, its play's pivotal roles are those written with them in mind. Aaron Krohn, Saxon Palmer and Jeanine Serralles are quite fine as the trouble making McBanes who ultimately realize that the happier future they thought would come from their revenge scheme can only be theirs if they climb out of the cage built by their anger and resentment. The trio is especially good in a raucous song and dance scene during the second act.
Good as the the actors playing the outsiders are, there are other excellent performances, most notably from Gerry Bamman's David McBane. Though deliciously obnoxious in his gung-ho religiosity, Bamman makes his character's faith and love for his daughter come across as genuine, especially when he finds himself having to deal with the sins of his sister and brother. This being an old-fashioned well-made play, it also offers the pleasure of seeing a good story enacted by a generously sized cast, including this genre's de rigueur maid (Fiana Toibin) as well as a family doctor (Chet Carlin) who makes house calls and is not too busy to take an interest in what's going on in his patients' lives. .
This long delayed American premiere of The Glass Cage will be followed by aThe Widowing Of Mrs. Holroyd by D. H. Lawrence, an author with whose The Daughter In Law the Mint has had great success