The Glass Cage
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 20, 2008
J. B. Priestley's 1957 play The Glass Cage tells a fascinating story. The place is Toronto, Canada; the time is October, 1906. We're in the sitting room of the McBane home. The McBanes are rich: David, the eldest brother, runs the family business; Malcolm, next in line, is a bachelor who divides his time between business and pleasure; and Mildred, fearsome ruler on the home front, is the widow of their brother Robert. David's daughter Elspie, of marriageable age, also lives here; her prime suitor is Mildred's nephew John, who is a student of theology. Their insular world is about to get a significant jolt.
There was a fourth McBane brother, Charles, who hated the family business and yearned to make it on his own in the Canadian West. But David, Malcolm, and Mildred didn't care for his desires, and particularly disapproved of the woman he decided to marry—a woman who was part Native American. Charles signed away his share of the business (worth a great deal of money) and took in its place stock in a worthless subsidiary that he would run himself. When this enterprise failed, Charles took to drink and died young. He left behind three children—Douglas, Angus, and Jean.
As the play begins, these three black sheep are on their way to the McBane manse. David needs them here to sign a deed; he plans to provide them each with a modest sum for their trouble and co-operation. But the trio have something very different in mind: they intend to win back, by whatever means necessary, the inheritance they believe their father was cheated out of.
Douglas gets by as a bookkeeper, Angus—a poet by nature—drifts from town to town, finding work as a bartender, and Jean, limited by the choices available to an unmarried and unschooled young woman of the lower classes, is a "singing waitress." They arrive in Toronto eager to get their share of the $200,000 dollars they say their father was entitled to. But of course their aunt and uncles don't think they're entitled to anything. And that conflict is the crux of the play.
Priestley's storytelling is potent and engaging, especially in the first act as we come to understand the motivations of the various characters. But the way he resolves the play disappointed me: the haves in The Glass Cage never really arrive at the conclusion that they should share some of their wealth with the have-nots because it is right to do so. I'm afraid I was craving that sort of resolution, especially in light of the economic situation our country currently finds itself in.
But that's not what Priestley is getting at in this play; what he's concerned with is the evil that results from income inequality. I'm not entirely sure that Lou Jacob's production presents this theme as persuasively as it could, but then again I'm not entirely sure that this concept works as a "moral" for the play as written: the first act leads us very forcefully in one direction, only to be brought up short as the second act steers us somewhere different.
There are some forceful performances in The Glass Cage, notably Saxon Palmer's sexy, dreamy, romantic Angus, who feels firmly at the center of the play, and Gerry Bamman's solid and, against the odds, completely sincere David McBane. Jeanine Serralles is disappointing in the pivotal role of Jean, who is in fact the story's protagonist: her portrayal is flat and superficial and doesn't expose enough about the character to let us understand her. I also would have liked more brio in the characterizations of Malcolm (Jack Wetherall) and Mildred (Robin Moseley). But Sandra Struthers-Clerc as Elspie and especially Chad Hoeppner as John give us a pair of young lovers to root for, even if Priestley ultimately lets them down at the end of his play.
The Glass Cage, like most of the works presented by the Mint Theater Company, is an intriguing find—in this case, a New York premiere of a 50-year-old play by one of the last century's acknowledged master playwrights. This piece is not going to eclipse An Inspector Calls or Dangerous Corner, but it's certainly well worth your time to give it a hearing.