Department of Theater’s GLARE Reflects on Vivid Confusion of Grief

It was a windy, gloomy night, and four audience members sat under an outdoor tent on plastic chairs pointed at a Kohlberg classroom window. Watching from the outside in, we wore headsets that transported us into the ultra-minimalist yet intimate aesthetic of GLARE, a live and virtual theater event from the Swarthmore Department of Theater directed by Visiting Assistant Professor Alex Torra. The show ran for about a half-hour runtime from Friday, April 9 to Sunday, April 11, and each of nine performances seated only five audience members. I had been in minimalist black box theaters before, but watching GLARE was the first time that I had seen an inversion of the concept; decked out in floor-to-ceiling white paper, Kohlberg 116 became a veritable light box with minimal props to distract viewers from the characters’ painfully muddled relationships and emotions.

The thirty-minute performance centers around Laura (Josephine Ross ’21), a shop attendant who is invisibly grieving her brother Tom (Amaechi Abuah ’21). The show is composed of a series of scenes about Laura going through her life after her brother dies, including her work, a visit to the doctor, and an awkward confrontation with her childhood friend Jim (Jack McManus ’21) after she refuses to acknowledge that they slept together. Tom, whom Laura has posthumously appointed as the voice in the back of her mind, narrates the show. Interspersed throughout the scenes are four clips from various movies and TV shows, including Bong Joon-Ho’s 2009 film Mother and ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder. At the end of the performance, Laura reads her eulogy for Tom from index cards before she begins speaking extemporaneously about their relationship. She speaks about how they would watch movies together when they were close as children, contextualizing the four out-of-place clips as her attempt to forget about her grief through the movies they had once loved together. The short vignettes swirl around in an inscrutable vortex that isn’t bound to chronology or even plot itself; at its core, GLARE is a show about the confusion of grief, a theme that it was impossible to forget even for a single second.

Only three actors took the stark white stage throughout the show, delivering performances that were as much of tours de force as possible within a 30-minute constraint on a near-empty set. The realistic complexity of Ross’s portrayal of a woman grieving — keeping afloat at times, at other times at a loss for words —  made me choke up. Abuah’s aloof-yet-intellectual portrayal of Tom evoked not only Tom from The Glass Menagerie, but also an image of the everyman dismayed at his place in life because he was supposed to accomplish great things. Though Laura’s already-strained relationship with Jim felt at times stiff, perhaps that was the point — that in the wake of immense grief, people err towards making poor decisions. More is left disastrously unsaid than said.

Despite the show’s overall theme of transparency into Laura’s mind, some of the experimental aspects proved distractingly difficult to process. Until Laura eulogized Tom at the end of the performance, my confusion about what was happening distracted me from ever becoming immersed in the story. The story relied a little too much on the audience rationalizing Laura’s disjointed memories and actions as grief just being like that, rather than explaining anything. The performance was also very short — which, of course, isn’t a flaw in and of itself because of the limitations of performing safe live theater during a pandemic. But it was as soon as I accepted the fact that I wasn’t about to figure out what was going on in the show that the show itself ended.

One thing that GLARE pulled off flawlessly, however, was making the audience contemplate our own connection to the story and provoking an intentionally comfortable level of self-awareness. In the opening monologue of the show, during which Tom’s disembodied narration described Laura’s average day, he acknowledged that the audience must, like Laura, be dealing with an invisible-yet-pervasive sense of grief. Several scenes performed in real time were projected onto the walls behind the “stage” and displayed on a monitor facing the audience. The way the scene recursively appeared within itself (similarly to this self-recursive image) made it seem like the audience was not watching the definitive sequence of events in the performance, but simply one among infinite iterations of the burden of grief.

In Laura’s eulogy of Tom, she alludes to the fact that she and her brother are named after the siblings from Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie. (Tom is also the narrator of The Glass Menagerie and Jim, Laura and Tom’s childhood friend and Laura’s love interest, is the name of a character with a similar role in The Glass Menagerie.) At the end of The Glass Menagerie, Tom, an autodidact stuck working at a shoe warehouse to support Laura (who is disabled) and their overbearing mother, leaves St. Louis and never returns. Before leaving home, he claims to go out every night to the movies, another connection to GLARE. GLARE attempts to answer the obvious question of what happened to Tom after leaving home, and what Laura would have made of his absence. The setup of GLARE made me feel as if the characters themselves had become pieces of the titular glass menagerie. They are fragile and transparent — objects to be viewed but never, ever touched. At one point immediately before his death, Tom addresses the glass panel (the Kohlberg window) in front of him. At another point, Jim takes a photo of Laura facing the window. In that moment, the audience became not active viewers of the swirl of memories and emotions that clouds Laura’s mind, but passive background characters in the story.

Though none of the characters ever conspicuously name-drop “GLARE” in any of their dialogue, the origin of the show’s title seems relatively straightforward. Colored lights glared off of the paper covering the walls and ground, providing some of the only color in the show. A glare is an unwanted reflection, and throughout the show, the glares on the Kohlberg window reflected that the audience was, unlike in traditional theater, physically separated by a barrier from the performance. At some points, I saw the reflections of the greenhouse on the BEP roof and headlights from a misguided car. In the same way that Laura watched movies to cope with her grief, going to my first live performance in over a year uplifted me from the stark reality of living through a pandemic. Nevertheless, there was a glare that served as a reminder of the distance that has grown between who we were before and who we are now after being forced to live with grief every day that we just have to accept.

GLARE showed that adherence to COVID-era safety restrictions don’t necessarily have to be an impediment or distraction from the traditional experience. With creativity and a willingness to adjust, the restraints can become a central tenet of a performance, provoking thought about how we engage both with relationships through glass screens and the grief that has so thoroughly dominated every aspect of life for the past year.

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