'Menagerie' director promises a mid-September night's dream

The Glass Menagerie- 2016-17 Theatre Company Season
First look at production photos for the DCPA Theatre Company’s ‘The Glass Menagerie.’ To see more, click the forward arrow on the image above. Photos by Adams Visual Communications.

By Sylvie Drake
For the DCPA NewsCenter

The Glass Menagerie is not Tennessee Williams’ first play. Nor his second. Not even his third. But it is an early play and the first one to provoke the kind of stir that awakens the public to the sense that they might be witnessing the birth of an important new playwright.

Life does not often allow us to be so suddenly and miraculously aware of something big occurring. Because it is derived from his short story Portrait of a Girl in Glass, The Glass Menagerie is achingly autobiographical and remains Williams’ most confessional and poetic play.

Structurally, it depicts the uneasy three-way tension among Tom (the Tennessee Williams stand-in), his mother Amanda Wingfield (based on Williams’ mother, Edwina — a flailing, aging Southern belle abandoned by her husband to rear their two children alone), and Tom’s gentle but damaged sister Laura (based on Williams’ sister, Rose).

Tom adores Laura but is helpless to rehabilitate her — just as Williams was tormented by guilt over a disastrous lobotomy that doctors performed on Rose when she was barely in her 20s. Tom is the observer — and the play’s narrator — who views this family triangle as the stone that keeps him tethered under water and unable to breathe.

(Pictured above right: Amelia Pedlow and John Skelley. Photo by Adams Visual Communications.)

Amanda, a materfamilias in spite of herself, refuses to acknowledge her social and financial destitution or Laura’s physical deficiencies (a bad limp). She fantasizes about finding her a proper husband and counts on Tom to help her find one. Tom, meanwhile, is choking on the task — torn between his familial love for these women, while yearning to break loose.

The 1944 original production, staged by Eddie Dowling and Margo Jones and featuring Laurette Taylor in a legendary turn as Amanda, caused a small earthquake during its Chicago debut. The wide-ranging enthusiasm surrounding it encouraged a March 1945 transfer to Broadway, where two words attributed to The New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson remain key to describing the play: “lovely and merciful.”

Written in a fresh and freer lyrical style, Menagerie’s wistful tone and filmy quality inspired designer Jo Mielziner to also break out of the confines of theatrical realism for both the set and lighting of the Broadway version. Menagerie became an immediate hit and won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Best Play award of 1945.

No one was more surprised than Williams, who retained a tenuous (and diffident) relationship with success throughout his life.

Glass Menagerie Quote Ina MarloweIna Marlowe, the Menagerie’s director at The Denver Center, has her own memorable connection to the play. Two years out of grad school, she staged a sign-language version of it in a tiny theatre outside Chicago.

“I love plays of language and character,” she said from her home in Conifer. “I’ve taught Williams, read him, staged him, seen the films. When I researched Menagerie, I read both published versions — the New Directions and the Dramatists Play Service.” 

In order to deliver the dreaminess that Williams had in mind, Marlowe eliminated the script’s cluttering screens and scrims in favor of an up-to-date stagecraft that didn’t even exist in the 1940s.

“Tom will not be in a Merchant Marine uniform,” she said. “There will be the clicking of a typewriter in the background to remind us he’s a writer telling the story of a family full of love, frustration and dreams — too much love in a sense — and all of them trying to escape their reality.” 

Williams, who had a compulsion to do both, needed to write the way other people need to drink. “He had to write,” Marlowe insisted, speaking of the blurred lines between Williams’ reality and the play. “He has to relive the experiences so as to be able to leave [his mother and sister] knowing the meanness and pettiness will disappear and only beauty and truth will remain. He must see them as iconic so he can leave them behind….”

What about the pain this causes?

“I’m not saying there’s no pain, Tom’s guilt at leaving Laura, his frustration at the difficulty of communicating with his mother. There’s heartbreak everywhere. Even the Gentleman Caller causes pain. But because Tom is a writer, he gets to the point where he must be able to leave if he’s to survive.”

To achieve her goals in practical terms, Marlowe wanted things “the color of memory” — faded by time. The floor is lit from below, suggesting a vestigial reality. “Williams talks about the lighting as an El Greco lighting, almost an interior light, a spiritual illumination.”

Laura’s glass animals are suspended in space. “She is, in effect, enveloped by them whenever she enters [the menagerie] to pick one up. They’re her escape — they and her father’s phonograph. Tom has his writing, Amanda has her memories of those 17 Gentleman Callers.”

Dissatisfied with the way the presence of the missing Dad too often is handled, Marlowe made sure his portrait would be prominent. “The place is haunted by the people who have left,” she said. “Loneliness inhabits the space between the characters.

“I want to create memory with clean, simple images. This play is so strong that no matter what twist or concept you place on it, it teaches you something about all relationships. I feel fortunate to be involved with a piece of literature that brings up such a well of emotions — so delicate, so human, so deep, so universal.”

Sylvie Drake was Director of Media Relations and Publications for The Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 1994-2014. She is a former theatre critic and columnist for the Los Angeles Times and a regular contributor to culturalweekly.com. 

The Glass Menagerie: Ticket information
• Through Oct. 16
• Ricketson Theatre
• ASL interpreted, Audio-described and Open Captioned performance: Oct. 15
• Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
• Groups: Call 303-446-4829


Selected previous NewsCenter coverage of The Glass Menagerie:

Wait, Williams’ mother entertained how many Gentleman Callers?
The Glass Menagerie: A modern visual twist on an American classic
First rehearsal: This will be no wimpy Glass Menagerie
Casting set for The Glass Menagerie
Kent Thompson on The Bard, The Creature and the soul of his audience
2016-17 season: Nine shows, two world premieres, return to classics

Meet the cast (more to come):
Laura Wingfield: Amelia Pedlow
The Gentleman Caller: John Skelley


Photo gallery: The making of The Glass Menagerie:

'The Glass Menagerie' in Denver

Photos from the making of ‘The Glass Menagerie’ in Denver. To see more, click the forward arrow on the image above. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Follow the DCPA on social media @DenverCenter and through the DCPA News Center.

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