Tom, after a few pivotal days in Saint Louis
Tom, after a few pivotal days in Saint Louis Credit: Freddie Bledsoe

Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie might be dismissed today as a predictable orchestration of southern gothic tropes and precious metaphors—like many of his lesser scripts—if it weren’t so intensely autobiographical. Sure, there are plenty of differences between Williams and Tom, his fictional surrogate in the play. But, as in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, it’s the similarities between art and life that matter.

Williams’s mother, Edwina, was a domineering, manipulative, toxic-guilt-inducing southern lady he once described as “a little Prussian officer in drag.” Tom bristles under a similarly oppressive matriarch, Amanda—a whirlwind of genteel chatter and withering criticism who’d do anything to keep her adult children dependent on her. Amanda may not have bouts of hysteria and strategic fainting like Edwina did, but she’s nearly as destructive. Where Williams’s sister Rose was famously lobotomized on Edwina’s orders, Tom’s sister Laura has a bum leg and a social phobia that leave her defenseless against Amanda. And Williams shared Tom’s psychic pain over abandoning a sister incapable of fending for herself.

Any good production of The Glass Menagerie needs to convey the aching authenticity of autobiography. Tom signals as much in his opening monologue, when he promises that the show will deliver “truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” Hans Fleischmann‘s fascinating revisionist staging for Mary-Arrchie Theatre delivers that ache from its opening moments, even before anyone has appeared onstage. In the darkness we hear 30 seconds of a string quartet playing a circular, irresolute piece by Daniel Knox, in which each instrument seems to search vainly for harmony with the others. The same sense of futility is everywhere present in Fleischmann’s intelligently acted, exquisitely paced show—despite the fact that it turns the Williams/Tom equation on its head.

As the play’s narrator, Tom returns to a few pivotal days in Saint Louis, 1937, when he broke free of his smothering family to pursue his dream of being a writer. In a conventional staging of the play, it’s clear that he’s fulfilled that dream, just as Williams did. But here Tom, stirringly acted by Fleischmann himself, is a strung-out, shoeless derelict in a dirty suit. His hair and beard are unkempt. His speech is halting. He swigs from a flask. His incessant verbal flourishes may be evidence of an innate poetic gift or the beginnings of psychosis. Unlike the Tom that Williams wrote, this narrator is an abject failure—and, crucially, an unreliable guide.

And his unreliability renders this theatrical chestnut from 1944, this taught-in-high-schools classic, bracingly unfamiliar. Designer Grant Sabin fittingly sets the play in an indeterminate, junk-lined space—an impossible hybrid of attic and back alley that’s bricked in on all sides. Joanne Dubach’s Laura and Maggie Cain’s Amanda inhabit that environment like specters emerging from Tom’s tortured brain. Laura is impossibly still in a gossamer frock, her face made up like a worn, nearly featureless Kewpie doll. Amanda’s dress looks as though it’s been in storage for a century, and her graceless chestnut wig seems to press down on her like the weight of the world. For the entire first act, they never look at one another but face the audience instead. They’re the distilled visions that continue to haunt Tom so many years after he left his mother and sister behind, and somehow he’s managed to conjure them for our benefit.

Nothing is what it seems. The fire escape where Tom muses and wishes on the moon is a misshapen hunk of metal. An old-fashioned, crank-operated clothes wringer stands in for Laura’s gramophone. And practically every other prop is a piece of old glassware. Even Laura’s collection of glass animals—the play’s central metaphor—is represented by a bunch of drinking glasses. Like the audience, Tom must project his internal reality onto whatever is at hand. In a sly bit of metatheatrics, vintage images are projected onto the set’s back wall throughout the show.

The result is a world utterly up for grabs. We never know how much of Tom’s story is factual and how much a fever dream. But the underlying emotional truth of his troubled and troubling family is always disarmingly evident, thanks to meticulous, perfectly pitched performances from everyone in Fleischmann’s remarkable cast. For all its presentational devices, the show delivers a real family inflicting real injuries on one another. Which is what keeps it from devolving into gimmickry. The core of Williams’s play remains unaltered, even as the trappings are turned inside out.

Oddly enough, Fleischmann’s inversion of The Glass Menagerie delivers a fiction more plausible than Williams’s actual life. After all, what’s more likely for a guy who grows up in a severely dysfunctional family after having been abandoned by his alcoholic father? To end up a homeless drunk or the toast of Broadway?