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Tennessee Williams and the Persistence of Memory

By Randall S. Barton on April 12, 2011 12:49 PM

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Few figures towered over post-World War II American theatre like playwright Tennessee Williams. From the premiere of The Glass Menagerie in 1944 through Sweet Bird of Youth in 1959, Williams was to drama what Rogers and Hammerstein were to Broadway musicals--celebrated and prodigious. Williams won two Pulitzer Prizes and a Tony award. His plays are peopled with drawling misfits in lyrical titles like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Clothes for a Summer Hotel.

Reed Theatre celebrates the 100th anniversary of Williams' birth with a production of his first commercial success, The Glass Menagerie, directed by Kate Bredeson, assistant professor of theatre. A four-character memory play, it is told from the perspective of Tom Wingfield, an aspiring writer who both narrates the play and acts in it.

All happy families resemble each other," Leo Tolstoy said, "but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."...

The Wingfields are not a happy family. In the waning years of the Great Depression, Amanda, the matriarch, augments her son's modest income by selling magazine subscriptions over the phone. Though she continues to inhale the vapors of long ago glories as a Southern belle, she has fallen on hard times. Her husband ("a telephone man who fell in love with long distances") walked out 16 years ago and the gracious living of her youth is made all the more poignant by the dreary St. Louis apartment.

Her daughter, Laura, is slightly lame with no prospects for either a job or romance. The fragile Laura lives in an imaginary world inhabited by a collection of glass figurines.

Trapped in this suffocating atmosphere and a job he hates, Tom escapes his mother's constant nagging by going to the movies.

The four-room set, designed by Kristeen Willis Crosser, aptly conveys the dour circumstances that Tom remembers. A Mission-style day bed is so uninviting a guest chooses to sit on the floor. The only thing that relieves the fecal drabness of the decor is the collection of glass animals, which, like the food and drink the family consumes, must be conjured in the audience's imagination.

As Bredeson explains in her director's note, "Williams speaks of his concept of 'plastic theatre,' and asks that there be no real food in the play, no 'genuine Frigidaire.' . . . we attempt to strip the play down to its essence, to focus on the emotional landscape . . . "

Stephen Bennett '11 plays the role of Tom with an athletic brio that has him bounding over the rail of the makeshift fire escape. The character is based on Williams, whose real name was Tom and who also worked in a St. Louis shoe factory. Though handsome, Bennett is no pretty-boy poet. His Tom is feisty, barely bridling his fury at his mother's foolishness. The play alludes to his sensitivity--he loses his job for writing poetry on shoeboxes--but it is easy to imagine this Tom leaving St. Louis with no more than a backward glance.

Anna Baker '14 makes a lovely Laura. Painfully shy, Laura is like a bird with an injured wing; she will never leave the nest. Her mother imagines that Laura's salvation will be a "gentleman caller" who will rescue her from the vulgarity of the modern world.

Tristan Nieto '13 plays the role of the gentleman caller, a co-worker of Tom's who comes to dinner unaware he is the dish being served. Nieto is particularly beguiling and his scenes with Baker are thrilling as she blossoms in his effusiveness and charm. You are able to see Laura through his eyes, as an unconventional beauty.

Rosalie Lowe '11 commands the central role as Amanda, the mother who loves too much. It is a plum role taken on by an impressive roster of American actresses, including Shirley Booth, Gertrude Lawrence, Maureen Stapleton, Judith Ivey, and Jessica Tandy. For years Katharine Hepburn refused to play the role, saying it belonged to Laurette Taylor, who originated the role on Broadway.

Most productions depict Amanda as older, grotesque, and batty, Bredeson notes. "But Amanda, to me, exists as she did when Tom was younger, and is defined by her desire to make life better for her children than it turned out for her."

Lowe makes the character her own, playing an Amanda imbued with the blush of youth, believably once the belle of the ball. She relieves Amanda's shrill carping with a comic touch, flouncing around in outdated finery and eavesdropping like a practiced comedienne.

Period costumes for the production were knowingly designed by thesis candidate Morgan Zimmerman '11.

Nearly 70 years after it made Tennessee Williams the toast of the town, The Glass Menagerie continues to entertain with its themes of the persistence of memory and the impossibility of escape.

The Glass Menagerie

Reed College Mainstage Theatre, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, April 14-16, 7:30 p.m., $1-$5, 503/777-7284.

Photo: Rosalie Lowe (left) as Amanda Wingfield and Anna Baker as Laura in "The Glass Menagerie." Photo by Russell Young.