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Illusions and Hope in Tennessee Williams’ Play

Theater: ‘The Glass Menagerie’

Caitlin O’Connell and Angela Janas in “The Glass Menagerie” at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield. Photo by Daniel Rader

Memory is a gravitational force in Julianne Boyd’s superb production of “The Glass Menagerie” now playing at Barrington Stage Company. Tennessee Williams filled his first successful play — it premiered on Broadway in 1944 — with barely disguised autobiography rendered in poetic language and with tender psychological insight.

Tom Wingfield (Mark H. Dold, who catches the rhythms of Williams lines perfectly), the character Williams invented to represent himself, has been long gone from the Wingfields’ drab tenement apartment in St. Louis when he speaks his opening monologue on the stage apron: The magician, he says, “gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” Like the father who abandoned him, his mother and sister to go wandering, Tom abandoned them, too, and has been wandering ever since filled with self-guilt that will not go away.

Once Tom steps into the apartment, we are back to the time when he lived there, supporting his family with a mindless factory job that paid him $65 a week. His mother, Amanda, is a former Southern belle who remembers being courted by dozens of “gentlemen callers.” But it was the ungentlemanly, handsome telephone man she married. Tom’s older sister, Laura, is lame and publicly mute with shyness and fear of being different.

These three, lost in life, cling together. Amanda (an affecting Caitlin O’Connell, verbose and slightly ridiculous, but with a backbone of steel) dreams of success for her children, dreams neither child has any chance of fulfilling, despite her nagging and prodding. Laura (tall, gentle, lovely Angela Janas) stays at home, rarely going out, even dropping out of a secretarial course because the stress made her ill. Her one pleasure is her collection of clear glass miniature animals, which she dusts and tends. Tom wants to be a writer and pecks away at a small portable typewriter (Williams’ mother bought him a typewriter when he was 12.)

Amanda decides Laura’s only salvation is marriage, and she begins needling Tom to bring a gentleman caller home from the plant. He does, and Jim (Tyler Lansing Weaks, glowing with self-assurance) comes for dinner. His long, poignant scene with Laura is like an emotional tide that comes in and then goes back out, as her hopes of romance are raised then dashed, like her favorite glass unicorn, whose horn Jim clumsily breaks. “It doesn’t matter,” she says. “Now he is just like the other horses.” In Janas’ reading, it will break your heart.

Williams allowed great latitude for future directors of his play, but he cautioned that whatever technique  is chosen, it should not escape “dealing with reality,” and Boyd makes sure the emotions are acutely transmitted and absolutely real. She positions furniture and blocks scenes expertly as they flow, inevitably and inexorably. Great moments are given air to breathe, and she pulls hopes and disappointments from her actors that are visceral, almost palpable. 

“The Glass Menagerie” is a great play, probably Williams’ most beautiful. Boyd’s production lets us rediscover why.

 

“The Glass Menagerie” runs at Barrington Stage Company’s Boyd-Quinson Mainstage in Pittsfield, Mass., through October 21. Call 413-236-8888 or go to www.BarringtonStageCo.org.