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The Glass Menagerie: A primer for the MAPA Production

Compassion isn’t a quality one instantly associates with the works of Tennesee Williams. Most of his plays famously come with attractive casts, sporting juicy Southern accents, feigning the sweat of a long hot summer, pushing against moral constraints and fiercely expressing their barely contained frustrations and lust.

If there exists of a trilogy of essential Williams plays, its unquestionably “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “The Glass Menagerie.” The first two are defined by their Southern Gothic sexuality, the raw desires of the characters and the repressed nature they share. What makes “The Glass Menagerie” unique is its tender, reflective quality, and the way it illustrates how the life of a quiet, introverted and self-sacrificing young woman holds longing of escape, romance and fulfillment. “Streetcar” may be forever defined by the primal summoning of Stanley Kowalski, the savage beast of Williams’ mint julep-loving south, crying out, “Stellllllllllaaaaaa!”

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is celebrated for the openness of Maggie the Cat, the hot and bothered protagonist whose husband, Brick, hides his homosexuality. The subject of deeply buried feelings that define our true selves is a shared quality in “The Glass Menagerie,” which the Maui Academy of Performing Arts is producing at the Steppingstone Playhouse, with performances beginning this weekend. The driving force of Laura Wingfield, the beautiful, tragic main character isn’t sex, but love.

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Blue Roses, Pleurosis

The play has been called “a memory play,” an odd and perfect description of a work that is frequently cited as Williams’ most openly autobiographical. The play centers around the actions of the Wingfield family, who are defined by their uncertainty and the loss of a father figure. Amanda Wingfield, the domineering mother, seeks to encourage and support her children but is a smothering sort of matriarch. Laura, arguably the play’s soulful center, is Amanda’s daughter, whose childhood illness of pleurosis has left her shy, introverted and lonely. Laura’s endearing collection of glass figurines represents an order, busyness and social quality absent from her life. It’s difficult not to see Williams himself in the form of the play’s male lead, Tom Wingfield, a would be poet who escapes from his life by retreating to the movies. The figure who enters the story late and shakes up the narrative is sometimes referred to as Jim and, in some productions, simply The Gentleman Caller. Jim is Tom’s friend from high school, whose invitation to join the Wingfields over dinner sets up a possible romantic connection between Laura and himself. Jim remembers Laura by a high school nickname he gave her, “Blue Roses,” and shares her longing for self improvement and escape.

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I played the Gentleman Caller in college, and can still remember most of my lines and how each moment as that character made me feel. Williams’ word are poetry. There’s a depth and naked sadness in his character’s dialogue, as they reveal themselves indirectly, not allowing hard truths to pour from their lips.

The “Glass” returns to the Maui stage

“The Glass Menagerie” is sweet, sad, funny and thoughtful, an exploration of a family living with regret and hope. It’s this universal quality that makes it a theatrical mainstay and a work that has remained with theater goers since its Broadway premiere in 1945.

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Over the years, acclaimed revivals of the work have lured audiences through star power, as Jessica Lange, Maureen Stapleton, Jessica Tandy, Paul Rudd, Julie Harris, Rip Torn, Christian Slater, Zachary Quinto, Pat Hingle and Cherry Jones have all embodied Williams’ deeply moving characters. While the promise of stargazing has long been a means of bringing the public to the theater, the longevity of “The Glass Menagerie” and the subsequent works by Williams, has always been through the power of the writing and the haunting quality of his “memory play.”

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It’s worth noting that, unlike other plays by Williams, “The Glass Menagerie” has never been definitively replicated for film. I’m fond of the quiet, subtlely stylish film version Paul Newman directed in 1987. Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward, played Amanda, while Karen Allen (Marion Ravenwood in “Raiders of the Lost Ark’), John Malkovich and David Naughton powerfully took on the roles of Laura, Tom and Jim. The film was a reference point in college theater classes I attended, as a rare example of Newman stepping behind the camera. It also demonstrated that, while there is value to the play being captured on film, “The Glass Menagerie” really isn’t meant to be experienced that way.

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Tom Wingfield’s love of cinema is a recurring theme in “The Glass Menagerie,” though his using cinema as a means of “escape” is a telling contrast to the way theater has always been a means of pulling an audience in. Not to recreate the sensation of escaping, but in bringing the audience deep within the world of the characters. Movies can do almost everything to pull an audience into their worlds but there are qualities that only theater can provide: in a theater, you’re breathing the same air as the characters, watching the story and progressive narrative unfold before your eyes. Bad movies can be captivating, as bells and whistles, like special effects, a catchy soundtrack and slick production values, can hold your attention. In theater, especially with a story and character-driven work like “The Glass Menagerie,” you’re not merely being entertained, but an invisible bystander to a remarkable human drama. Great theater causes us to hold our breath, lean forward and savor every real moment unfolding before us. “The Glass Menagerie” is a work of art that needs to be seen on stage, where its compelling, tear-inducing qualities have never diminished. The play is the stuff of dreams…a perfect quality of a true “memory play.”

The Glass Menagerie plays Oct 24th- Nov 9th at MAPA’s Steppingstone Playhouse at the Queen Ka’ahumanu Shopping Center. For Tickets, call 244-8760 or go to mauiacademy.org

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About Barry Wurst II

Barry Wurst II
Barry Wurst II is a senior editor & film critic at MAUIWatch. He wrote film reviews for a local Maui publication and taught film classes at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs (UCCS). Wurst also co-hosted podcasts for Screengeeks.com and has been published in Bright Lights Film Journal and in other film-related websites. He is currently featured in the new MAUIWatch Podcast- The NERDWatch.

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