Tennessee Williams had been writing since he was a teenager, and by the time he was 30 years old he was getting nowhere. His early plays bombed. His father was not around and he was dominated by his mother… shades of The Glass Menagerie, his first success. Williams invented the term, Memory Play, to describe The Glass Menagerie. It refers to a play narrated by the lead character whose memories form the plot. He said this enabled productions to enjoy freedom from convention. The play hadn’t done well in Chicago, where Williams had gotten a bit Brechtian with unrealistic sets and projected titles. But after praise from two major critics it opened in New York in 1944, where it received 24 curtain calls. The Glass Menagerie would eventually be joined by new works—Streetcar, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Camino Real, The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, The Night of the Iguana, Out Cry, The Rose Tattoo, and more– on and on.
I was interested in finding out how the Arden Theatre Company’s producing artistic director, Terrence Nolen, would handle this treasure. He doesn’t go in for fancy stuff like projections for this play. While the lighting might have been more atmospheric, the production is enhanced by clever and effective use of music and sound—very convincing rain on window panes and the occasional ringing of a bell. Nolen does it pretty much by the book, plays it straight. And the show is attracting attention.
Shy Laura Wingfield (Hannah Brannau) has a bad leg and a collection of little glass animals. Tennessee Williams wrote about the handling of Laura’s condition: “This defect need not be more than suggested on the stage. Laura is like a piece of her own glass collection, too exquisitely fragile to move from the shelf.” Although her slight limp is mild, Laura is overly conscious of it. The Arden production changes the little limp to a more concerning condition that can’t be as easily tossed off. The lovely Laura actually does require a wheeled walker to negotiate movement on stage. More worrying than a slight limp, this effects a change in the dynamic of the story.
Actor Krista Apple plays Laura’s mother, Amanda, with her memories of old suitors, busybody version of caring, and her fortitude. Although at times it sounds like recitation, she worries about Laura’s future and about her son, Tom (Sean Lally). She sweeps around in comically outrageous gowns, while underneath it all, Amanda cares more than we knew. Gentleman Caller (Frank Jimenez) brings energy to the stage. And Tom’s monologue, beautifully delivered, closes this famed memory play.
[Arden Theatre, 40 N 2nd Street] October 6-November 6 2022; ardentheatre.org