Reflecting on “The Glass Menagerie”

If you’re looking for a conventional review of Trinity theatre’s production of “The Glass Menagerie,” you’ve come to the wrong place.

Oh, sure, I could write a review, but five hundred words of “DUDE THIS PRODUCTION IS THE BEST THING EVAR” would get pretty tiresome rather quickly.

For now, suffice it to say that this is a damn good production of an indispensable show by THE indispensable playwright of American theatre. The direction and production design is evocative without being show-off-y, and each actor captures the dizzying complexity of Williams’s characters, those wounded but radiant human beings who are, to steal a phrase from the play, like “bits of a shattered rainbow.”

All in all, this is as heartfelt and well-calibrated a production of this demanding show as you’re likely to see  in a long, long time.

I hope that the above blurb has sold you on going to see this powerful production of a powerful play. But what I’d like to focus on for the rest of my article is this: What makes “The Glass Menagerie” itself so powerful, exactly? Why is it enshrined in our culture as an immortal piece of theatre and an inarguable American classic?

Since the show is running on our campus at this very moment, I think it makes sense to ask these questions. Answering them will enrich the experience of watching Trinity’s production, even if you’ve already seen it.

One thing that makes “The Glass Menagerie” so memorable is what the play focuses on, and how strongly and intelligently it focuses on it.

With literally countless subjects to write about, Williams decided to write about America’s marginalized””to spin a story about those on the fringe of our often cruel and exclusive culture.

From the play’s opening scenes, it’s clear that young Laura Wingfield is something of an outcast, a shy, crippled young girl trapped in the superficial high society of the old South.

But, as the play winds its way to its devastating conclusion, Williams subtly shows us how the other Wingfields are outcasts as well: the mother, Amanda, has a nervous personality that’s at odds with conventional notions of sophisticated womanhood, while her son Tom has a creative temperament that can’t be shoehorned into a respectable suit-and-tie job.

That Williams writes about such outcasts at all is appreciable; that he does it with such convincing authenticity is astonishing. The playwright constantly undercuts dramatic scenes with funny ones, terrifying moments with touching ones””and, by doing so, he shows us that the Wingfields are neither victims nor villains, but simply human beings who wish to belong in a kind of society that has now made it exceedingly hard for them to do so.

In addition to being notable for choosing an important subject matter, “Menagerie” is unforgettable for the way it explores that subject matter.

The play is told in flashback, with Tom Wingfield looking back on a series of incidents that forever changed his family. Williams makes it clear from the very beginning that the play is not about what happened to the Wingfields; it’s Tom remembering what happened to the Wingfields.

“The Glass Menagerie” knows when we recall something important,  as Tom does, we don’t remember linear narratives; instead, we unspool a mental mess of heightened emotions and random details and snapshots of old faces.

Williams’ stroke of genius is to present the play in a way that mimics this kind of disorderly and emotional remembering. By writing in little non-verbal details like a strain of music or a beam of light illuminating a photograph, Williams allows us to see this story the way Tom sees it. And, lucky for us, we’re privileged enough to have an incredible presentation of Tom’s vision right here on our campus.

In her lecture at Trinity this week, Amy Goodman suggested that, in this time of persistent crisis, our focus as a nation should be on “where the silence is””””in other words, on those important but troubled people who are often shut out of both our collective society and our individual thoughts.

With craft, bravery and beauty, Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie” goes where the silence is, and I’m thrilled to say that Trinity’s theatre has assembled a highly qualified team to take us there.