Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie is as classic and American a drama as they come. Most of us have had to study it – perhaps in drama school or high school literature class. It exists in a place somewhere between venerable literary text and dramatic playscript. Like memory, as Williams invokes it in the script, our perspective on the play is often-times romantic, soft, nostalgic. However, what has always fascinated me about the play as it appears on the page (particularly in Tennessee Williams’ stage directions) is how experimental, meta-theatrical, and innovative the piece wanted to be. Fourth wall address, projections of imagery and text, and expressionistic music are prominently featured as narrative devises. Sounds like something out of a Paula Vogel text. But it was Williams. Rest assured.
Now, more than 70 years since The Glass Menagerie first appeared on Broadway, A Noise Within is reviving the work. Recently, I interviewed actor Rafael Goldstein, who is playing Tom Wingfield in the Geoff Elliot-helmed production. We could not help but gush over what it means to return this play to its technologically and meta-theatrically adventuresome roots in A Noise Within’s current production.
Roger Q. Mason (RQM): The Glass Menagerie is noted for innovating the contemporary memory play. Playing Tom, what was your process navigating his memories of his family and his dilemma in the present?
Rafael Goldstein (RG): That is the primary challenge of playing Tom. He is, at once, something of an omniscient narrator, while also being helpless in the riptide of his own memories. He is capable of looking back on his earlier life and analyzing the circumstances of his departure from his family with the benefit of years of experience, but when he is inside the action of the play he is completely overwhelmed, living it, victimized by it. Williams, like Proust, knew about the incredible potency of memory. In the final monologue of the play, Tom says that “a bit of familiar music” or “a piece of transparent glass” can make his long-lost sister manifest physically. Whether this is meant poetically or not, I have found it helpful, in the playing of it, to take Williams at his word.
RQM: I love director Geoff Elliot’s notion that Amanda’s protection of her children is the very thing that is decaying them and preventing them from growing. Do you think Tom made the right move walking away from his mother and sister? What do you think happened to Laura afterwards?
RG: The tragedy of the Wingfield family is that they love each other desperately but don’t know how to navigate their individual priorities or desires without hurting one another. I don’t know if Tom’s decision to leave his mother and sister can be couched in terms of “right” or “wrong”. I think it is a necessity.
Animals gnaw off limbs to get themselves out of traps. Kasey Mahaffy and Erika Soto, who play Jim the Gentleman Caller and Laura Wingfield, came up to me after a recent run-through and said it’s clear, in our production, that Tom has to get out in order to survive, but the price to pay is everlasting regret – a piece of him will always be missing. I’m not sure what might have happened to Laura after Tom leaves, but I don’t think it could have been good. Their mother has left them nearly incapable of living in the real world. When Amanda dies, where does Laura go? She has no friends, no family. It is not a pleasant thought.
RQM: The piece is unapologetically autobiographical. What can you share about the real-life story which inspired the play?
RG: According to a couple of biographies I’ve read on Williams, this play is very close to the bone. Apparently, his mother Edwina Williams was as verbally expansive and as cutting as Amanda is in the play. Their relationship was close, but fraught. She was in the theater on opening night of the original production. His father, unlike Tom’s, did not leave the family and headed to Mexico, but was emotionally absent and hard-drinking. A year before The Glass Menagerie premiered, Williams’ sister, Rose, underwent a lobotomy at the urging of her mother. She was in her early thirties. She spent the rest of her life in institutions, paid for by Williams and then, after his death, by his estate.
RQM: Another thing I am obsessed with in this play is how experimental it actually is on the page – slides of images, sub textual quotes meant for projection, movement in front of and behind screens and fourth wall address. Are you guys embracing those more expressionistic elements of the play in your production?
RG: We are. When Glass first premiered in the mid-1940s, the technology didn’t exist that would have honored Williams’ stage directions, which are extensive. Now, as Tom, I can motion to the stage manager in the booth in the middle of a direct-address monologue and, as if by magic, a slide will appear with an image of blue roses, or a basketball star, etc. When I first encountered The Glass Menagerie, I thought it was burdened with the “Great American Play” designation, which, in my mind, meant that it was concerned with realism and subtlety. While those things are present in the actual playing of scenes, the framework that Williams sets up in the very beginning of the play keeps it from being a simple “kitchen sink drama.” The fact that Williams was dismayed at the technical limitations of the original production speaks to how far ahead of his time he was, as well as his high ambitions for the theatre-making world generally.
RQM: This production marks the return of ANW legend Deborah Strang to the role of Amanda. What is one thing you learned working with her?
RG: I learn something from Deborah every time I work with her. She is a tremendously generous actor – diligent, curious, always looking for new ways to work scenes. Sometimes actors who have played a role previously feel they can get away with repeating choices that they made in the past. Not so with Deborah. It’s a rare joy to be on stage with someone you know so well who is looking at you as if for the first time, every time. I strive to have that kind of in-the-moment discovery that she brings to every role she assays.
For more information about this production, visit ANoiseWithin.org/play/glass-menagerie
Featured image: Raphael Goldstein as Tom Wingfield and Deborah Strang as Amanda Wingfield. Photo: Craig Schwartz