The Glass Managerie

Aspiring writers are often told to "write what you know," so after a few unsuccessful attempts at getting his work recognized, Tennessee Williams adapted The Glass Menagerie from a short story [Portrait of a Girl in Glass (1943; published 1948)] and a screenplay [The Gentleman Caller] that he wrote on the same familial subject. The play opened in Chicago in 1944 and, thanks to a couple of critics who saw Williams' gift, it went on to Broadway, where it won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for best play.

Aubrey Deeker as Tom
Aubrey Deeker as Tom
Photo: Adams Visual Communications
The play is Williams' most biographical and begins with Tom, as a stand-in for the author, explaining that, in this "memory play," he is giving us "truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion." As we see in this stunning production directed by Ina Marlowe for the Denver Center Theatre Company, the truth of the play is still producing new revelations.

Marlowe's staging is both elemental and ethereal, with plenty of room for the soft edges of memory that frame scenic designer Joseph P. Tilford's dining room table, the suspended minatures of the menagerie, the divan, the Victrola, the fire escape, and the photograph of father. In addition to Tilford's finely tuned work, Charles R. MacLeod's evocative lighting, and Meghan Anderson Doyle's splendid threads, Tyler Nelson's sound design provides perfect atmospherics for Laura's state-of-mind and other poignant moments.

(Left to right) Amelia Pedlow as Laura and Kathleen McCall as Amanda
(L to R) Amelia Pedlow as Laura
and Kathleen McCall as Amanda
Photo: Adams Visual Communications
As soon as Tom (Aubrey Deeker) begins to set the scene, we are struck by a resonance, in speech and mannerisms, with what we imagine Williams himself to be at the age he first wrote about his relationship with his mother, his sister, and his absent father. As Amanda's (Kathleen McCall) criticisms of Tom build up, Deeker slowly comes to a boil until we have that explosive monologue in which he lights up the stage with incandescent fervor:

What do you think Iím at? Arenít I supposed to have any patience to reach the end of, Mother? You think Iím crazy about the warehouse? You think Iím in love with the Continental Shoemakers? You think I want to spend fifty-five years down there in that celotex interior? With flourescent tubes? Look! Iíd rather somebody picked up a crowbar and battered out my brains than go back mornings. But I go. For sixty five dollars a month I give up all that I dream of doing and being ever! And you say self—selfís all I ever think of. Why listen, if self is what I thought of Mother, Iíd be where he is (indicating the picture of father), GONE!

Iím going to the movies! Iím going to opium dens, yes, opium dens, Mother. Iíve joined the Hogan Gang, Iím a hired assassin, I carry a tommy gun in a violin case. I run a string of cat houses in the Valley. They call me Killer, Killer Wingfield. Iím leading a double life: a simple, honest warehouse worker by day, by night, a dynamic czar of the underworld, Mother. On occasion they call me El Diablo.

Oh I could tell you many things to make you sleepless. My enemies plan to dynamite this place. Theyíre going to blow us all sky high some night. Iíll be glad, very happy, and so will you! Youíll go up, up on a broomstick, over Blue Mountain with seventeen gentleman callers. You ugly, babbling old witch!

Kathleen McCall as Amanda
Kathleen McCall as Amanda
Photo: Adams Visual Communications
McCall's Amanda is consumately self-consumed with memories of her youth and its culture of gentility among the white folk, which she ruthlessly seeks to impose on the present—to the point of delusion—so that when it turns out that the Gentleman Caller, James (John Skelley), is engaged to be married, she blames Tom, who knew nothing about this. McCall is so effective at all of this, we are ready, like Tom, to join the Merchant Marines.

Yet, Tom, has a soft spot for his sister Laura (Amelia Pedlow), just like Williams had for his sister, Rose; in fact, "Blue Roses" is the nickname that James gave to Laura in high school. Up until the living room scene with James (a winning performance by Skelley, that deftly reveals James' layers as he opens up), Laura has very little dialogue, but Pedlow says it all with her face. The intimacy of the Ricketson Theatre serves as a perfect amplifier for such a sublime performance, but it turns out that this wonder is only the set-up for something far greater, which sets the gold standard for unlocking this classic drama.

John Skelley as The Gentleman Caller and Amelia Pedlow as Laura
John Skelley as The Gentleman Caller
and Amelia Pedlow as Laura
Photo: Adams Visual Communications
As the scene between Laura and James unfolds in the living room, and as they re-establish their connection from high school and then some, we slowly come to the realization that there is a spark of romance and love in all of this. James and Laura are still bound by all the conventional formality of the era, but there is no denying the strong, visceral attraction on both sides, more than we have ever witnessed in this scene. After a couple of swigs of wine, and with James' encouragement, Laura's depth comes to the fore. Pedlow's subtle changes in focus and voice make this transformation a revelation that changes any expectations we may have had as the play draws to its famous conclusion.

When it finally comes to Tom explaining his departure and telling Laura, from his narrative space, to blow out the candles, we realize that her retreat back into her world of glass animal miniatures is not from the disappointment of James' engagement—as bitter as that might have been, their connection grounded her in a real way—but from Tom's departure, just as it was for Rose in real life, bringing the biographical elements of the play to full realization, as Tom notes in his concluding monologue:

I didn't go to the moon that night. I went much further—for time is the longest distance between two points. Not long after that I was fired for writing a poem on the lid of a shoe-box. I left Saint Louis. I descended down the steps of this fire escape for the last time and followed, from then on, in my father's footsteps, attempting to find in motion what was lost in space.

I traveled around a great deal. The cities swept about me like dead leaves, leaves that were brightly colored but torn away from the branches.

I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something. It always came upon me unaware, taking me altogether by surprise. Perhaps it is just a piece of familiar music. Perhaps it is just a piece of transparent glass.

Perhaps I am walking along a street at night, in some strange city, before I have found companions. I pass the lighted window of a shop where perfume is sold. The window is filled with pieces of colored glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colors, like bits of a shattered rainbow.

Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes. Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!

I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger—anything that can blow your candles out!

For nowadays the world is lit by lightning! Blow out your candles, Laura—and say goodbye ...

As painful as it was for Williams to leave his sister and then to see her institutionalized, in hindsight he made the choice that he had to make, and we stand in awe of the poetic gifts that he has given to us.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's presentation of The Glass Menagerie runs through October 16th. For tickets:

Bob Bows

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