Tennessee Williams is best known for his wild, unapologetic theatrics, from images of unhinged Southern belles and shouted proclamations of romance to themes of sweaty desperation and sexual inhibition. But the play that first brought Williams to prominence was 1944’s “The Glass Menagerie,” a modest character study that is, for the most part, as quiet and delicate as the glass figures that serve as its central metaphor.
Now playing at the newly christened Modern Theater Spokane (formerly Interplayers), “Menagerie” focuses on three damaged characters who are cramped together in close quarters and yet remain separated by a vast emotional gulf. The play springs from the memories of Tom Wingfield, who lives with his mother Amanda and his physically weak older sister Laura.
Amanda is a doting mother – perhaps too doting – struggling with the fact that her children have grown up and are pushing her away. Laura has yet to find a romantic suitor and retreats into a fantasy world involving her collection of handcrafted glass animals. And Tom is frustrated with his deadening factory job, and his failed attempts at becoming a published poet drive him to drink.
The play is thought to be semi-autobiographical – Laura is likely modeled after Williams’ own sister, who was institutionalized after a botched lobotomy, and Tom’s inner turmoil possibly echoes Williams’ own struggles with his sexuality and alcoholism – which makes it all the more heartbreaking.
“The Glass Menagerie” served almost as a dry run for Williams’ later, greater successes – “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “The Night of the Iguana,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” – but it remains one of the most important pieces of theater from the early half of the 20th century.
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