The Glass Menagerie

The Glass Menagerie

The Glass Menagerie

Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Les Waters
Main Season · Thrust Stage
April 7–July 2, 2006

Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission

The incomparable Rita Moreno returns to Berkeley Rep for a role as iconic as she is: Amanda in The Glass Menagerie. If you missed her in 2004’s Master Class, this is your chance to witness an extraordinary performance from one of the few artists to win the Oscar, Tony, Emmy and Grammy! For Amanda, memory is a refuge; for her son, it’s a prison. And for you, Tennessee Williams’ beloved “memory play” is an invitation to see one of the great actresses of our time in the intimate, 400-seat Thrust Stage. Ms. Moreno is joined by a supremely talented cast and directed by Berkeley Rep’s OBIE Award-winning associate artistic director, Les Waters.

Creative team

Tennessee Williams · Playwright
Les Waters · Director
Scott Bradley · Scenic Design
Lydia Tanji · Costume Design
Matt Frey · Lighting Design
Peter Golub · Composer
Cynthia Cahill · Stage Manager
Madeleine Oldham · Dramaturg
Laura Brueckner · Assistant Dramaturg
MaryBeth Cavanaugh · Dance Consultant
Lynne Soffer · Dialect Coach
Amy Potozkin · Casting
Kristi Lynn Johnson · Assistant Designer
Karen Szpaller · Production Assistant

Cast

Emily Donahoe · Laura Wingfield
Erik Lochtefeld · Tom Wingfield
Rita Moreno · Amanda Wingfield
Terrence Riordan · Jim O’Connor

“Stunningly designed and expertly performed, Williams’ 2 3/4-hour memory play bristles with life…it’s a Menagerie clearly conceived as if it were a new play…Rita Moreno stars as Amanda Wingfield, in a beautifully nuanced portrait that becomes the throbbing, awful but inescapably empathetic heart of Les Waters’ engrossing revival.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“Stunning…Strikingly innovative…Rita Moreno, Berkeley Rep deliver devastating new Glass Menagerie…a wonderful new look at an old friend.”—Contra Costa Times

“Lustrous…Extraordinary…Director Les Waters creates a Glass that is jagged and refracts pain and love and hostility and desperation with the kind of clarity and confusion that would likely thrill Williams himself…Waters has a great actress on the job: Rita Moreno…giving one hell of a heartbreaking performance.”—Oakland Tribune

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Prologue: from the Artistic Director

A classic challenge

Great plays are messy. Any director or actor who has worked on what we consider classics (be it Hamlet, Tartuffe or The Iceman Cometh), has made the same discovery: at the heart of these plays are mysteries that cannot be fully explained, mysteries that often create havoc with time, location and plot. It is wonderfully ironic that many of the greatest classics do not adhere to classical principles of dramatic construction. Rather, they invent their own logic, a poetic logic that serves the larger vision of the play. Such is the case with The Glass Menagerie.

During his opening remarks to the company, director Les Waters commented that a modern play development process would probably have forced Tennessee Williams into cutting several problematic scenes. These scenes do not adhere to traditional notions of clean storytelling, nor do they fit into a neatly described plot. Rather, they serve to create a psychic terrain for the play; they create a particular ambiance, a mood or spirit or feeling that allows us to perceive something we did not see before. Williams was clearly skilled at this: his entire body of work seems devoted to exploring how people survive while living under huge, inexorable or self-made shadows. Towards that end, they often invent their own language, their own code of behavior, their own reality. This is what gives Williams’ plays their originality, their strangeness, their profundity.

The Glass Menagerie has been performed countless times by many wonderful artists. Like any great piece of art, the play seems to act like a prism, revealing new colors and nuances in the hands of different artists. By marrying the talents of Mr. Waters (who brings the fresh experience of never having seen the play) with the extraordinary Rita Moreno and a wonderful team of actors and designers, we bring to you our version of these haunting and timeless (for our time) stage events.

Welcome aboard,

Tony Taccone

Williams’ delicate masterpiece

By Tanya Palmer

“[The Glass Menagerie is] semi-autobiographical—that is, it is based on the conditions of my life in St. Louis. The apartment where we lived wasn’t as dingy and poverty-stricken as that in the play, but I can’t say much for it, even so. It was a rented, furnished apartment, all over-stuffed furniture, and the only nice room in it was my sister’s. That room was painted white and she had put up a lot of shelves and filled them with little glass animals. When I’d come home from the shoe place where I worked—my father owned it, I hated it—I would go in and sit in her room. She was the member of the family with whom I was most in sympathy and, looking back, her glass menagerie had a meaning for me. Nostalgia helped—it makes the little flat in the play more attractive really than our apartment was—and as I thought about it the glass animals came to represent the fragile, delicate ties that must be broken, that you inevitably break, when you try to fulfill yourself.”—Tennessee Williams

With The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams crafted a drama that not only transformed the landscape of American theatre but also introduced us to some of the most powerful and resonant characters ever to be realized on stage: Amanda, the determined, suffocating mother, a southern belle whose own disappointments fuel her desire to create a different life for her children; Laura, whose disabling shyness compels her to retreat into a private world populated with delicate glass creatures and old phonograph records; Jim O’Connor, the much-anticipated gentleman caller, a high school success story struggling to live up to his past; and Tom, the stand-in for the author himself, the frustrated writer caught between his sense of obligation to his mother and sister and his own passionate need to escape from the tedium of the workaday world to a place of adventure and fulfillment. These characters, quite apart from the play they inhabit, have become a part of our cultural lexicon and they continue to capture the imagination of audiences, actors, directors and other writers, who look to them as the embodiment of desire and frustrated dreams.

While much of what we know and remember about The Glass Menagerie has to do with the stunning honesty and vulnerability with which Williams crafts his characters—all based on the writer’s own difficult and damaged family—what is perhaps most surprising is the relevance of the particular historical and sociological circumstances which are revealed through the voice of Tom as the narrator. The play, written during the final years of the Second World War but set during the time of the Spanish Civil War, begins not with an immediate description of the women whom Tom both loves and craves to escape, but rather with a short treatise on its historical moment: Tom dreams of shedding the monotony and slow death of his factory job and family responsibilities for the adventure promised by a life in the Merchant Marines.

But Tom also recognizes the constraints placed on his desires. Part of the huge, disappointed and disillusioned middle class whose dreams had dissolved before its eyes during the Great Depression, Tom recognizes that his options for adventure are limited. Even Jim O’Conner, the gentleman caller who offers the one ray of hope for this struggling family, has been forced to curtail his dreams.

The setting itself—revealed more fully through Williams’ evocative stage directions—is also a reflection of the play’s social and political landscape. He describes the Wingfields’ apartment as belonging to “one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centers of lower middle-class population and are symptomatic of the impulse of this largest and fundamentally enslaved section of American society to avoid fluidity and differentiation and to exist and function as one interfused mass of automatism.” This dystopian vision of an America defined by its unfulfilled promises and disappointments make the time and place an important character of the drama, haunting the lives of Tom, Amanda and Laura as much as their own interior dreams and desires do.

First produced in 1944 in Chicago, The Glass Menagerie introduced Williams as an important new voice in American theatre. His previous play, Battle of Angels, was a flop that never made it past its trial run in Boston. But with this striking and innovative work, Williams struck a chord. When the play opened at the Playhouse Theatre on Broadway on March 31, 1945, it received rave reviews and instantly became a huge commercial and artistic success. The play ran for 561 performances; in April 1945 the prestigious New York Drama Critics’ Circle named The Glass Menagerie best American play of the year. This stunning success heralded a time of great creative productivity for Williams; he would soon craft some of his most celebrated and memorable works. Summer and Smoke, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—all followed in the next decade, solidifying Williams’ place as a major American dramatist.

But the years following these great successes would not be happy ones for Williams. He suffered a series of devastating losses including the death of his father, upon whom the wayward husband in The Glass Menagerie was loosely based, as well as his partner of many years, Frank Merlo. The bouts of depression that had haunted him throughout his life worsened and he began to depend more and more heavily on drugs and alcohol to get him through the days. He continued to write, but with mixed success, and by his death in 1983, the great American playwright had fallen out of fashion.

In his book The Other American Drama, critic Marc Robinson makes a case for the renewed importance of Williams, along with the need to view his art with fresh eyes:

“Tennessee Williams spent a lifetime trying to escape clichés, those about his theatre and those about the people his theatre portrays, but the clichés still cling to him. They simplify his evolution as a writer and, what is perhaps worse, they persistently attract readers eager to diagnose his characters rather than listen to them. ‘Lonely outcasts,’ ‘sadly maimed,’ ‘torn by the passion of life’—the same phrases returned to herald each play no matter how much richer it was than the last one, no matter how complicated and tentative its conjuring of emotion. To read Williams now, decades away from his period of greatest celebrity and after his subsequent notoriety has subsided, requires one first to weed out those epithets and clear a generous approach to his art. We think we know his world, so familiar does the summary of each play sound, but in fact we know only the accolades, or only the tone of the put-down. We’re sure that our theatre has moved on from the kind of writing Williams did, as perhaps it has, but after reading the writers who succeeded him in our devotion, his plays astonish us anew. They set a standard for emotional truthfulness that most playwrights still fail to match.”

Tennessee Williams: The man & the artist

By Jack Tamburri

Tennessee Williams, the playwright and poet whose epic, dreamlike dramas freed the American theatre from the stifling grip of realism, was born Thomas Lanier Williams on March 26, 1911 to Edwina and Cornelius Williams of Clarksdale, Mississippi. Tom’s sister Rose had been born two years earlier. In 1918 the family moved out of the Episcopalian rectory where Edwina’s father was minister and followed Cornelius to St. Louis where he had attained a managerial position in a shoe warehouse.

Tom’s childhood was spent primarily in Rose’s company. The two were close friends, and would remain so into adulthood despite Rose’s declining emotional stability. Tom was a writer from an early age. His first paid work was a third place prize and five dollars for an essay, “Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport?” written for the magazine Smart Set at age 16. In 1929 he enrolled at the University of Missouri, but withdrew after his junior year and went to work in the same shoe warehouse as his father.

In April 1935 he had an emotional breakdown and spent the next few months with his grandparents in Memphis. It was at this time that he first began to acknowledge his own homosexuality—Williams would become a fixture of the gay subcultures of New Orleans, New York and the many other cities in which he lived as an adult; his work would continually confront issues of guilt, desire and the outsider perspective gained from sexual difference.

Williams went back to college and graduated from the University of Iowa in 1938. In 1937, while he was at school, Rose received—at the recommendation of her doctors and with her mother’s permission—a pre-frontal lobotomy which drastically altered her personality and caused her to spend the rest of her life either in hospitals or with constant caregivers. Tom was unaware of the surgery until his mother wrote to him after the fact.

Though he had written a number of plays that had received performances in St. Louis and elsewhere prior to 1944, that year became the turning point of Tennessee’s career—it was the year The Glass Menagerie debuted in Chicago. The short story upon which it was based (called “Portrait of a Girl in Glass”) introduced Laura, the glass-collecting introvert whose life is spent “at the edge of the water, so to speak, with feet that anticipated too much cold to move.” The central action of “Portrait,” the story of Laura’s first date with a man her brother brings home from work, is intact in both the screenplay version (The Gentleman Caller) and Menagerie. But it is the tone of the short story and its emphasis on memory that, when moved to the stage, made the play more than just the tale of a sad girl. The narrator, speaking from some indeterminate future place, spins a story of regret and abandonment that must have mirrored the guilt Williams felt over his own sister’s situation.

Menagerie was full of techniques and language Tennessee had learned from the cinema. He was an avid moviegoer, and his attempts to capture the experience of being transported by film translated to the stage in Menagerie’s fluid episodes. In the opening stage direction, Williams emphasizes his commitment to distancing the work from common techniques of realism: “Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart. The interior is therefore rather dim and poetic.” This exploration of the theatre’s capacity to focus on emotional resonances rather than historical verisimilitude would find its way into most of Williams’ plays in one form or another. With Menagerie’s opening monologue, in which Tom describes himself as a poet with “a poet’s weakness for symbols,” Tennessee granted himself permission to be explicitly theatrical and to unapologetically plumb the depths of imagination for his stage pictures and devices.

Williams’ career encompassed more than 25 full-length plays, as well as many shorter ones, two novels, three books of verse, sixty short stories and an original screenplay. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for A Streetcar Named Desire and again in 1955 for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. After the death of his longtime partner Frank Merlo in 1961, Williams entered a period of extreme depression and chemical dependence. In his memoirs he referred to the 1960s as his “stoned age.” Though none of his later plays received the acclaim granted to Menagerie or Streetcar, bold experimental visions like Camino Real continue to engage artists and audiences to this day.

In spite of his tumultuous personal life and a history of alcoholism and addiction, Tennessee maintained a strict working schedule, rising early every morning and spending at least the first half of the day writing under the influence of black coffee. In 1983, after a night of heavy drinking, Williams died in a New York City hotel room, choking on the cap from a bottle of phenobarbital.

When he wrote his memoirs in 1972, Williams described his first youthful encounter with the stage: “Then and there the theatre and I found each other for better and for worse. I know it’s the only thing that’s saved my life.”