Inside the walls of a cramped St. Louis apartment, Tennessee Williams’ characters, the Wingfields, move gingerly through the shards of their losses, longings and loves.
On April 10, Anthony Bean Community Theater opens its production of the “The Glass Menagerie,” a play considered by many to be Williams’ most successful works. It is the somewhat autobiographical story that centers on Tom Wingfield, a writer, who is begrudgingly supporting the family his father abandoned; Amanda, his domineering mother; and the haunting memory of his sister, Laura, whose preoccupation with a collection of glass animals draws her a long way from reality.
This tale of loneliness and deferred dreams set against the backdrop of the Depression has resonated with audiences through seven decades. The play opened on the New York stage in 1945. It was an unqualified success and launched the playwright into fame announcing him as a major new voice in American theater. It ran for 563 performances and earned Williams his first New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for the best play of the year.
The play went through several stages before its Broadway debut. In 1941, Williams, then 30, wrote the short story “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” which focused on Laura Wingfield. In the summer of 1943, Williams wrote a screenplay titled “The Gentleman Caller,” which was rejected by MGM Studios. He then combined the two and the classic was created.
In his often-referenced production notes for “The Glass Menagerie,” Williams tells us that this is a “memory play.” He believed that “truth, life, or reality is an organic thing which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest, in essence, only through transformation.” With “The Glass Menagerie,” Williams was making a determined effort to create a new theatrical aesthetic. Mid-century audiences were accustomed to strict realism; this play deliberately stages scenes to look somewhat artificial.
Former New Orleanian Janet Spencer returns to ABCT as the director of “The Glass Menagerie.” She previously directed a production of “A Member of the Wedding,” which featured veteran New Orleans actress Carol Sutton. Spencer lives in Bastrop, Texas, where along with writing and directing short comic films, she is the producer of the “Off Kilter Comic Film Festival.”
“For as long as I can remember I have wanted to direct this play,” said Spencer. “Plays about family relations — good and bad — have always been my favorites.”
In this production the cast consists of all black actors, a fact that otherwise should not be noteworthy in this day and age. However, it is hard to get around some societal incongruities. For example, Amanda Wingfield is an exiled Southern belle sharing her stories about a certain time period when blacks would not have been accepted into the society she reminisces about. Spencer said she’s embraced this challenge with the input from her cast.
“Since all of the actors are African-American, they understand cultural nuances that may escape me,” she said. “Working together, we have woven these subtleties into the production without materially changing the script. This collaboration has enhanced the play as well as adding excitement to the rehearsal process.”
Starring in ABCT’s production is Gwendolyne Foxworth, a Big Easy Award winner and a member of The Anthony Bean Community Theater since its inception 15 years ago. She plays Amanda and heads a cast of local actors, including Albert Aubry, Coti Gayles, Dwight Clay and DC Paul.
Spencer is excited about this production because of the cast she’s been able to assemble.
“The biggest challenge of doing this play is casting well and working with the actors in a way that will fulfill the emotional depths necessary to make Williams’ vision come alive. The biggest reward is when they do.”
“Glass Mengerie” is an enduring piece of theater. ABCT and Spencer are confident that their production will stay true to Williams’ vision, while adding a few things that will help portray the Wingfields’ very complicated family dynamics.
“Relationships and emotions are universal, I don’t see my adaptation as a reinvention,” says Spencer. “Williams instructed directors that ‘the play can be presented with unusual freedom of convention.’ I have taken him at his word.”