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When artistic director Karen Azenberg contacted Mary Robinson about directing Tennessee Williams' classic family drama "The Glass Menagerie" at Pioneer Theatre Company, Robinson said her first thought was, " 'I'd love to do this play; who can we get as Amanda?' … That's the hard role to cast; you've got to get an actress of that age who can carry it off."
Robinson soon realized she already knew someone Nance Williamson. The two had worked together 15 years earlier in a production of Donald Margulies' "Dinner With Friends," and they both remember the experience vividly because rehearsals began in New York just five days after 9/11, and the company was struggling to cope emotionally. "I have this really special memory for that cast and for Mary," Williamson recalls, "because she helped us move through that in a way that was unexpectedly healing." The two are delighted to be working together again. "It feels very much like a gift to me," Williamson says.
Amanda, who is based on Williams' mother, Edwina, is the most complicated character in his highly autobiographical portrait of a family in turmoil. She has a difficult relationship with her two children, Tom and Laura, and the family's precarious financial situation adds to the tension. Sixteen years earlier, their father, "a telephone man who fell in love with long distance," deserted the family, leaving her to get by the best way she can. "It's just a masterful portrait of a family that is struggling, both externally and internally, with their family dynamics," Robinson says. "Yes, the mother is domineering over the son, but she feels she has to be because she's done this by herself all these years, and yes, the son is desperate to get out, but he can't leave his sister, and he does love his mother."
Laura, based on Williams' sister, Rose, is painfully shy, partly due to a limp that resulted from an attack of polio. She finds refuge in her collection of tiny glass animals. Amanda nags Tom to find a nice young man for her; the play's fourth character, Jim, is the "gentleman caller" he brings home in Act II. Tom calls him "the long delayed but always expected something that we live for."
"The Glass Menagerie," written in 1944, was Williams' first big success. The play won the 1945 New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Although the production, which opens Friday, Oct. 21, is a first for PTC, the play is one of Williams' most popular and has had numerous revivals. A 2013 production featuring Cherry Jones as Amanda garnered seven Tony Award nominations, and another revival featuring Sally Field is playing on Broadway. Actors ranging from Laurette Taylor in the original production to Maureen Stapleton, Jessica Tandy, Julie Harris, Jessica Lange, Joanne Woodward and Katharine Hepburn have portrayed Amanda, either onstage or in film.
It's a formidable array, but Williamson knows it's essential for her to create her version of the character. "You want to be able to connect to it in a way that's personal to you so that the truth within you connects with the truth for that audience," she says.
At 5 feet, 10 inches, she is much taller than many who've played the role, so her image is "a little birdlike woman that doesn't necessarily appear like one but has a broken spirit inside." Although people usually equate Laura with the glass menagerie, Williamson thinks the entire family has that fragility. At the same time, "she has a survivor instinct in her that's fierce," Williamson says. "I think she loves her children very much, but she doesn't have the proper boundaries. … She's shoving. There's a misguided maternal instinct in her."
For playgoers who associate Williams with his grittier work like "A Streetcar Named Desire" or "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "The Glass Menagerie" is a much quieter, gentler play. Tom, who represents Williams in the play and acts as narrator and a character, tells us it's a memory play; it's not realistic.
Zachary Prince, who plays Tom, has had his eye on the role since he played a poet in one of Williams' short plays in college at Carnegie Mellon. "I remember just loving the language and the poetic lilt and rhythm of how he writes," Prince says. But portraying Tom is tricky: How do you unify the poetic style of the narrator's monologues with the realistic dialogue of Tom's family scenes?
"Popping in and out as the narrator seemed like a challenge when we first started," Prince says, "but there's a beautiful flow to it."
In the beginning, the narrator controls the play's action, but then the other characters "run amok," as Prince puts it, and take on a life of their own. So by Act II, "the characters of Tom, the narrator, and Tom, the young man, start to merge," he explains. There's "an immediacy as to why he needs to tell this story. … He's trying to figure out what happened and how he can move on with his life. …When you put that immediacy into it, it drives the story in a much more exciting way. … The narrator [is] actively trying to figure it out as it's happening as if he's writing the play in real time."
What accounts for "The Glass Menagerie's" enduring popularity? The cast agrees that it's the complexity of its characters. Williams knew them intimately and was able to capture them in vivid detail. "It's a quiet play, but there's a lot seething beneath the surface," Robinson says. "I think that's why people are so drawn to it."
Adds Prince: "These characters were so complex and detailed and nuanced because they were real to him. … In rehearsal, we spend so much time unpacking the text and the subtext; it's like an onion; we're constantly peeling away."
Robinson has perhaps the definitive reason for the play's continuing appeal: "We find every day how freshly and insightfully it speaks to the experience of being a member of a family, which we all have. … We all know the play well, but … aspects of it, especially the family dynamic, speak to people in new ways each time."
Such small hands
Pioneer Theatre Company presents "The Glass Menagerie," Tennessee Williams' classic play about his own dysfunctional family.
When • Opens Friday, Oct. 21, and plays Mondays through Thursdays at 7 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. through Nov. 5, with Saturday matinees at 2 p.m.
Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $25 to $44; $5 more on the day of the show; half price for students K–12 on Mondays and Tuesdays; 801-581-6961 or pioneertheatre.org