The Glass Menagerie

by John Stoltenberg

What’s the best way to stage a modern classic that is both reverential and revelatory? How does one mount a production that is respectful of the author’s intent yet freshly insightful? How can a production that is both faithful to the text and plentiful with pleasant original surprise seem a coherent vision, a seamless whole?

The rewarding answers to all those questions can be found on stage right now in Director Mark Ramont’s beautiful and expressive new interpretation of  The Glass Menagerie at Ford’s Theatre.

The most immediately dramatic evidence of Ramont’s sensitively innovative approach is what we see before the play starts: Projected onto a white scrim pulled across the proscenium is a montage of clips from 1930s films and movie previews. Barely perceptible under the buzz and stumble of other theatergoers finding their seats is a mashup of these movies’ soundtracks. Are we in a cinema? Seems so. Or maybe a faded memory of one, for far left and right are huge piles of broken old movie theater seats that seem to bracket the stage with obsolescence.

Then gradually—on an old-fashioned living room set dimly lit in the center—we become aware that there’s a figure sitting in a wing chair facing upstage watching the same screen we’re seeing and smoking a cigarette. The play proper hasn’t begun, not a word of Tennessee Williams’ lovely language has been spoken, yet we are already immersed in the world of the character Williams wrote as its narrator, Tom, the lowly shipping clerk who aspires to be a poet. As we will soon learn, Tom—to avoid his mother Amanda, whose spirited presence he experiences as stultifying, and to escape into an imaginary world of adventure—goes out alone every night to the movies.

In one incandescent stroke of stagecraft, The Glass Menagerie has come alive in a whole new way.

The rest of the production follows suit. Moment after moment, we see Williams’ classic 1930s memory play not as a museum piece but refreshed in true tribute. For instance, Jim, the Gentleman Caller, appears in half light during Tom’s introductory monolog, so we already have a picture of him long before his entrance. And later, as his high school triumphs are recounted, we see black-and-white footage of his athletic prowess and charisma that makes the character’s backstory vivid in our minds. Laura, Tom’s painfully shy sister, appears onscreen as well—a picture of a possibility that never comes to pass and a vision of a hope that gets dashed.

In the scene near the end between Jim and Laura, the script has him asking her to dance with him. She demurs at first then awkwardly does so in a passage that as written lasts but a dozen lines of dialog. In Ramont’s production the lighting shifts and the music swells and they do a stunningly balletic pas de deux that suddenly sweeps us into all that Laura wishes for and all that her mother wants for her: true love with a man who loves her in return, her body wholly abled, her shyness become ebullience, her future secure. All of that wishing and wanting is in the text, but in that moment in this wonderful new production we get to experience it visually and viscerally.

Does the play itself stand the test of time? Well, yes and no. It is a period piece to be sure—and the Ford’s Theatre production showcases it lovingly. The sense in which it is a memory play has been heightened gloriously through scenic, sound, and cinematic effects. The resources of Ford’s Theatre could not have been expended on this masterpiece for more wow.

But what now seems dated is the play’s plot engine: the fact that Laura, who on account of being “crippled,” is so excruciatingly introverted that she flees business school, making her mother Amanda obsessive in her quest to snare Laura a man who will ensure her financial future. So much has changed that would have made Laura’s life entirely different today: The disability rights movement, which helped open doors through the ADA that were shut tight in the 1930s. The women’s movement, which helped give young women a  shot at financial independence as a Ms., not a Mrs. For gosh sakes even the airily aspirational human-potential movement, which now offers self-help courses and support groups of all sorts.

Williams’ script bluntly acknowledges the economic hardships of the era The Glass Menagerie is set in. And he foresees our individualistic pick-yourself-up-from-your-funk future when he has Jim urge Laura to take the public-speaking class he’s in. But Jim’s touching presumption that what works for him as a man will work just as well for Laura is unexamined. In the precious world of Laura’s glass animal collection, there is no glimmer of the transformative sexual politics to come.

Ford’s Theatre presents a Glass Menagerie that is a memory play most profoundly in the sense that it reminds us of a yesterday that is gone but should not be forgotten—a time when young women like Laura were destined for destitution if they did not marry. For anyone who knows the play (or who doesn’t yet), the Ford’s Theatre production is not to be missed. It is a brilliant, almost textbook example of how to lift a vintage script from the assigned-reading list and breathe brand-new life into it for today.