At CalShakes, director Lisa Portes reimagines Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie as a story of a well-intentioned but dysfunctional African American family.
When Lisa Portes’ production of The Glass Menagerie opens, Tom Wingfield (Sean San José) breaks the fourth wall to explain that what we are watching is a memory play — his memory of his mother and sister. The set itself has a frame, suggesting where walls should be without actually constructing them: this isn’t a real apartment, but the memory of one. The stage starts out relatively barren, though we can see items of furniture in the wings, ready to be plucked up and moved centre stage as Tom reconstructs his childhood home. As the story continues and Tom gets more invested, the apartment becomes more cluttered — with furniture and memories — and rich with detail.'This isn’t a real apartment, but the memory of one.'Click To Tweet
When The Glass Menagerie premiered in 1944, it catapulted playwright Tennessee Williams to fame. This story of a dysfunctional family of white southerners living in the shadow of lost fortune is perhaps Williams’ most personal play. Laura’s physical disability visibly translates the cognitive disabilities of Williams’ sister for the stage. The matriarch, Amanda, was the first of Williams’ many loquacious women, who filled the air to avoid dealing with their problems. And the play’s narrator, Tom, would form another sort of Williams stock character: the unhappy outsider young man. But the characters’ obsession with their former glory is also a gesture toward the end of slavery, and the treatment of Laura’s disability has been a subject of much debate: on Broadway last year, Sam Gold staged a production featuring a disabled actress in a wheelchair, who was by no means disempowered by her body’s limitations.
The casting in Portes’ production engages with the difficulty of making this dramatically excellent play relevant to a modern audience. Continuing CalShakes’ policy of diverse casting, all of the actors in the production are African American — except José, who is Filipino. In the program, dramaturg Philippa Kelly explains that there were such African American landowners in the American South at the time, so it wouldn’t be historically inaccurate to imagine the Wingfield clan as being African American. But since this is a memory play, and José’s ethnicity doesn’t make sense at all in this historical context, it seems an unnecessary complication. If José felt like an outsider all his life, reimagining his family as being of a different race would be one way to communicate that. We’re never really sure whether Tom is remembering real events, or inventing a story that stands in for a more complicated history. If the play is already straying so far from realism, why not have racially blind casting all around?'The casting engages with the difficulty of making this play relevant to a modern audience.'Click To Tweet
In Portes’ imagining, the Wingfield family are well-intentioned people who love each other, but don’t necessarily know how to express it. They may be helpless and misguided, but they aren’t fundamentally selfish, as they are often portrayed. They each live in a dream world. Amanda (the magnificent and commanding Karen Aldridge), the family matriarch, won’t stop talking about the good ole days when she had 17 gentlemen callers — before she made the mistake of marrying her husband, who worked for the phone company and “fell in love with long distances”. Tom spends all his time at the movies, and Laura, Tom’s younger sister who walks with a limp, cultivates a collection of glass figurines. Laura’s future is uncertain, but Amanda doesn’t know how to help a daughter who seems unable to help herself. She’s both too shy, and in her mother’s eyes, too physically damaged to easily attract a wealthy husband.'In Portes’ imagining, the Wingfield family are well-intentioned people who love each other.'Click To Tweet
Such a sympathetic portrayal is out of tune with earlier iterations of the play. In the 2011 Toronto Soulpepper production, Amanda was simply selfishly desperate, worried about her son abandoning her while she’d be burdened with the care of her disabled daughter. In Portes’ hands, Amanda seems pragmatic: she’s getting on in years and must ensure her family’s financial security. She nags Tom about his nightly trips to the movies — his own fantasy land — because she wants him to feel the weight of his responsibility. He must bring home gentlemen callers, for how else can they ensure his sister’s future? Tom is itching to leave, but most of the time we spend with him in the play is in that apartment, which lets us know how deeply invested he is in his family. Unlike previous portrayals, Laura is less encumbered by her physical disability than her assumptions about how people view her because of it.Laura is less encumbered by her physical disability than her assumptions about how people view her because of it.Click To Tweet
Structured in three acts — discussing the need for a gentleman caller, preparing for the invited Gentleman Caller Jim (Rafael Jordan), and receiving him — the play doesn’t start out tragic so much as tumble slowly towards tragedy. Amanda may be worried, but she’s not defeated: there’s still the hope of a gentleman caller. Tom still hopes to escape. Laura is still naive enough to not be worried about much save her mother’s acceptance. We’re easily as distracted by Amanda’s charm and yarns as she is. But the more the Wingfields begin to pin all their hopes and dreams on one gentleman caller, who hasn’t even been informed that he’s being received as anything more than a casual dinner guest, the more tragic it becomes.'The problem is in the stories the Wingfields have told themselves about their lives.'Click To Tweet
When Gentleman Caller Jim (Rafael Jordan) arrives, it’s both the nail in the coffin of Amanda’s imagined future and an unexpected gift. In their abortive flirtation, he gives Laura the assurance and self-confidence denied to her by a family who only see her limitations. Jim never noticed her limp, never saw it as a reason to be embarrassed, and she needn’t either. The problem, we begin to see, is in the stories the Wingfields have told themselves about their lives. Jim can’t be the answer because he’s engaged, yet he still offers Laura something important: he challenges how Laura sees herself, an identity shaped by Amanda. When Amanda learns he’s unavailable, her savage attack on Tom for his carelessness in bringing Jim home reveals that her charming gentility is an act. Amanda may mean well, but her firmly held belief in Laura’s helplessness is something Laura has internalized. Laura may be crushed by Jim’s rejection, but their moment of genuine connection gives us and Laura a glimpse of another possible future: not one with Jim, but a future where Laura can see herself as Jim sees her.
The outdoor theatre setting helps with this less bleak interpretation. As the play progresses, the world around the stage darkens: the Wingfields may have lost their electricity, but we’re aware that the darkness of night is temporary. Instead, the candlelight over which Laura and Jim reminisce about high school adds intimacy. If it were up to their mother, there’d be light, and Amanda would be stealing the show. But Tom didn’t pay the bill, and something blossoms that couldn’t under Amanda’s tight control. We don’t see Amanda and Laura in utter despair so much as carrying on. They’re hurt and uncertain, but they’re not broken.