"The Glass Menagerie": It's a Trip to the 1940s (And Still Worth Making)

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, he Glass Menagerie

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

Amanda (Cherry Jones), left, with her daughter Laura (Kate O’Flynn) in The Glass Menagerie, Courtesy Johan Persson

Following the opening monologue of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie actress Madison Ferris, as Laura Wingfield, makes her theater entrance with Sally Fields, who plays her mother, Amanda, in the play. Fields pushes her in a wheel chair to the bottom of a staircase that leads from the theater aisle to the stage. Ferris gets out of the chair carefully and pushes herself up the stairs, ever so slowly, straining every muscle, one agonizing step at a time, helped by Fields, and then reaches the top. It is a brutal, heart-wrenching scene. You can’t help but feel badly for Laura Wingfield. You know, too, that this riveting start kicks off a play that sends you reeling into the deep space of sadness on a journey into unfulfilled lives.

It is the 1940s in St. Louis and Amanda Wingfield, whose husband left her years before, is thrilled that her son Tom has invited a friend from work to be a “gentleman caller,” or date, for wheelchair bound Laura, who hints that she had a crush on him in high school, when he called her “blue roses.” She still does. Amanda, played wonderfully by Sally Fields, can now can marry Laura off and her daughter will be happy for the rest of her life, leaving just Tom to find a wife.

It is the perfect plan for success, Laura believes, as the play, which opened last week at the Belasco Theater on W. 44th Street, in New York, tells us at the start. Then things take a few bad turns.

The “gentleman caller” is not just a man for Laura, but the ghost of a young man for Amanda, who not only prattles on about all of her boyfriends before her marriage, but wears her old cotillion gown for the caller’s visit, bringing back even more old memories, and stories told ten thousand times.

The caller, a vibrant, if a bit disoriented, man named Jim, who never stops smiling, gets Laura away from her mother and brother and out of her wheelchair, and tries to seduce her, it appears. She seems willing and, by candlelight, they slide into each other’s arms.

Then things go wrong, very wrong.

Director Sam Gold has done a fine job with the play, even though he decided to use a cold, Spartan set instead of a standard set of a lush old home. He squeezes every bit of emotion out of his characters and connects them all with life in our contemporary world. He makes good use of Laura’s ‘glass menagerie’ of unreal animals who are her friends in her unreal world. Gold pretty much sticks to the Williams script, a gem of a story, and brings his talented actors along with him.

Sally Fields, two-time Oscar winner, is just brilliant as Amanda. She is loud and boisterous and she is humble and quiet. She scolds Laura and then holds her. She sees the future and yet remembers the past. She is teary-eyed one moment and prouder than a peacock the next. It is a tour de force performance. Gold gets fine performances from the other actors in the show, too. Joe Mantello is the troubled son Tom at the start of the play and the mellow reflective Tom at its end. Ms. Ferris, who is actually handicapped in real life, is solid as the demure, scared, Laura. Finn Wittrock is superb as the high school sports superstar who now, six years later, is in a dead end job and going nowhere.

This play about life and family and hopes and dreams was written in the 1940s, but is still a chestnut and will be one hundred years from now. Williams really gets into people’s psyche and understands their vulnerability. There are times in the play when you just want to cuddle Laura and other times when you want to strangle her mother.

The Wingfields, ever hopeful, are a family that is going nowhere. The husband fled and the mother wanders through her home aimlessly, trying to create a new and better life for her family. Laura is “crippled,” as she complains often, has no job and no future. Brother Tom tells you right away that he hates his life and cannot wait to escape it. No American dream for the Wingfields.

The Glass Menagerie is a stellar play for all of those reasons, for deep character portraits and sharp plot twists. It is a great play too because of the lush, rich language in it and that was Tennessee Williams’s strength. You can just sit back and listen to the actors soar as they talk about each other and the world. The play is a triumph of dialog and conversation.

The Glass Menagerie was written in the 1940s and has a lot of historical references in it, but Williams did not explore them in depth. There are faint illusions to the lingering days of the Depression in the recent, late 1930s and the difficulty of landing a good job, or a job at all. There are references to World War II, but none are really explained in full. There is nothing there on the colorful history of St. Louis in that era, except for a brief mention of a newspaper story about Cardinals pitcher Dizzy Dean. You just wish that Williams had written more about the troubles of people in St. Louis, in the nation, during the Depression. As an example, while the national unemployment rate in the late 1930s was 25%, it soared to 35% in St. Louis. Manufacturing in the city fell by 57% in the 1930s. Many people fled the city for the suburbs. The town was lined with soup kitchens and bread lines. Some discussion of this would have enhanced the story.

One thing still holds true, though. Tom does not pay his electric bill and the electric company turns his power off. They do that today. Nothing has changed there!

See The Glass Menagerie. It is produced every few years somewhere and remains a classic story with memorable characters, even the battered Unicorn in Laura’s glass menageries itself.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by Scott Rudin and others. Sets: Andrew Lieberman, Costumes: Wojciech Dziedzic, Lighting: Adam Silverman, Sound: Bray Poor. The play is directed by Sam Gold. It has an open run.

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