Court Theatre

When I was a student at Evanston Township High School, our drama class was assigned to read The Glass Menagerie and analyze its dramatic structure. Nearly the whole class, self-centered adolescents that we were, decided that the play’s antagonist, the figure against whom the protagonist must struggle to achieve his objectives, was Amanda, the overbearing, nitpicking mother always nagging at her son Tom to give up his dreams of being a poet, settle for a decent if dull job, and accept responsibility for his sister Laura. Our teacher sharply criticized us for our ignorance and insensitivity–Amanda’s concerns were well grounded regardless of her personal eccentricities, he scolded us; straitened circumstances, not Amanda, were the drama’s antagonist.

Our teacher may have been technically correct in his assessment, but our instincts were right, too. For all its period quaintness and humor and delicacy, for all the trappings that come with a classic too often taken for granted, Glass Menagerie seethes with raw anger–playwright Tennessee Williams’s complex, tormented hatred of his mother and his own overwhelming guilt about his sister. The mother, Miss Edwina, was a southern minister’s daughter with an unerring knack for instilling anxiety in her children; sister Rose, the model for Laura–her nickname in the play is “Blue Roses,” a brilliant evocation of the play’s underlying melancholy–was a schizophrenic. Williams once cruelly insulted Rose in a sibling spat they had while he was on break from college; before he had a chance to make amends, Rose had been given a prefrontal lobotomy that effectively destroyed her troubled mind. Williams never forgave himself–or his mother–for Rose’s tragedy.

Perhaps an audience doesn’t need to know the details of Williams’s biography to appreciate the story of The Glass Menagerie–Amanda, concerned that the “painfully shy” and physically lame Laura will be doomed to dependent spinsterhood, urges Tom to bring home a friend from work as a possible suitor for Laura; the Gentleman Caller inadvertently breaks Laura’s heart and dashes Amanda’s hopes when he reveals that he is engaged to another girl. But it seems to me that the ways in which Williams transformed his own emotional conflicts into poetic drama are very key to understanding that drama. Certainly Laura’s situation–her inability to function well enough in society even to attend business college, her frequent and increasing retreats into her own private world as she plays with her collection of glass animals–must be understood as the symptoms of incipient mental illness.

But, in his stated aim to “strip the play of its sentimentality, and explore the reality beneath it,” Court Theatre artistic director Nicholas Rudall has chosen instead to treat Amanda, Tom, and Laura Wingfield as just a family, caught up in the usual love/hate tensions of any family. The three fine actors he has cast in the leads give performances more notable for plain-spun strength than any other quality.

Mary Ann Thebus, as Amanda, is a lean, commonsensical sort, a little garrulous but hardly the compulsive, illusion-ensnared faded southern belle Williams envisioned. If Amanda is usually played larger than life, it’s because that’s how Williams saw her, in his own hypersensitive way–a grande dame and a dragon all at once. Thebus hits her stride in act two, when she flirtatiously receives the Gentleman Caller and, in the play’s heartbreaking climax, when she turns with monstrous yet all too human unfairness on Tom and blames him for Laura’s crushing disappointment (it’s a standard tendency, psychologists say, for the mother of a schizophrenic child to project her own guilt onto the healthy sibling). But the mother doesn’t dominate the play’s emotional core as she should, as she did in Williams’s mind and in all of his work.

As Laura, Ann Dowd (in a singularly, and I hope deliberately, unbecoming long wig) is no reclusive dreamer but a rather earthy old maid; her habit of suddenly turning away from difficult situations and focusing on her glass menagerie seems a deliberate choice by a clear-minded if frightened woman, not a sign of mental disorder that is clear to everybody except those closest to the victim.

Joe Guzaldo is, as always, a pleasure to watch and hear, with his superbly focused physical energy and virilely mellifluous voice; but his strength belies Tom’s own weakness, which Williams revealed even while trying to conceal it. (Williams’s biggest lie in Menagerie is his portrayal of Tom as some macho guy who follows in his absent father’s footsteps by taking to drink and deserting the family; Williams’s own father was all too present, berating his son as a “sissy,” and Williams himself was all too unable to escape his mother’s snares.)

As Jim, the Gentleman Caller, Patrick Clear gives a vigorous, active performance that suddenly and belatedly makes us aware of how passive the Wingfield family is–something we should have felt all along. But like the other actors, Clear is directed so briskly and naturalistically that we miss the poignancy of what he represents: not just an outsider, but a normal, healthy man who, in the claustrophobic Wingfield home, is like a stranger in a strange land.

Rudall’s approach does have its merits. It clearly highlights the interaction of a close-knit family in its mercurial shifts between affection and alienation, playfulness and anger. The bond between Amanda and her “precious children” is well drawn in the easy way in which Amanda and Laura touch each other and in the wonderfully giddy scene in which Tom teases his mother about bringing home a beau for Laura. The naturalistic approach also emphasizes some of the play’s social themes: the sense of small lives being lived in a time of great events (the Spanish Civil War, the Great Depression); the notion of “popularity” according to the rigidly defined sex roles of American culture (Amanda’s reminiscences of entertaining her own gentleman callers, Laura and Tom’s admiration of Jim’s social superiority in high school). And the play’s most important theme, illusion–expressed in Amanda’s dreams of marriage for Laura, Tom’s fascination with the movies, and Laura’s glass unicorn, which Jim accidentally breaks–is clearly delineated.

But it’s never felt; Rudall shows us a lost world, but doesn’t draw us into its haunting and haunted atmosphere, which in Tennessee Williams’s life and art far outlasted the reality of actual events.