One of Salvador Dali's most recognizable paintings, titled “Persistence of Memory,” is an apt description of Tennessee Williams' drama “The Glass Menagerie.” Memory functions as an overriding theme for members of the dysfunctional Wingfield family, a mother and her two children who avoid dealing with reality by escaping into their illusions.
Directed by Lyric artistic director Michael Baron, Williams' popular 1944 drama opens this week at Lyric at the Plaza. The four-person cast features Washington, D.C.-based actress Helen Hedman as family matriarch Amanda, Alex John Enterline as her son Tom, Lindsay Pittman as his sister Laura, and Dallas Lish as Laura's gentleman caller Jim.
Nearly 70 years after its Chicago premiere, “The Glass Menagerie” retains a relevancy that speaks to contemporary audiences. This compelling drama features characters who are forced to deal with issues of survival, remembrances of better times and the occasional glimmer of hope.
“Families are always relevant,” Hedman said during a break from rehearsals. “We have a lot of issues but our dreams are as strong as our illusions. Tennessee Williams happened to find a groundbreaking way to tell a story about the human condition.”
Set in St. Louis during the Depression, “The Glass Menagerie” takes place several years after Amanda's husband walks out on his family. A Southern belle who had an idyllic youth, Amanda now struggles to raise her children as a single parent.
Her daughter, Laura, had a childhood illness that left her with a limp. Like her collection of miniature glass figurines, Laura has a fragile nature and an inferiority complex that causes her to withdraw from the outside world.
“I think the menagerie is the one little escape she has, the one beautiful thing in her life,” Pittman said of her character. “It's all about her fragility and these delicate things she takes such good care of.”
Tom, an aspiring poet who struggles to support his family by working in a shoe warehouse, functions both as narrator and a participant in the play's action. Devoted to his older sister but misunderstood by his mother, Tom longs for a better life.
“The entire play is told from Tom's memory,” Enterline said. “But once he steps into the play's environment, everything is very different. He feels guilty that he wants more out of life but reliving those memories makes him realize that for the first time in his life, he decides to do something for himself. It's an illusion wrapped in reality.”
Jim was a star athlete in high school who now works with Tom at the shoe warehouse. When Jim is invited to have dinner with the Wingfields, he sees firsthand the family's idiosyncrasies but ends up sharing a poignant moment with Laura.
“Jim shows up into this home not knowing what to expect but he sees it as an opportunity to help Laura,” Lish said. “He decides to make her his little project. He had everything handed to him in high school but he has a lot of insecurities as well. He's a glass half full kind of guy.”
Amanda may well be a precursor to the character of Beverly Weston, the conflicted matriarch in Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “August: Osage County.”
“Amanda will scream, flail and bore her children to death with stories of the old South, but I think she'll always have hope and determination,” Hedman said. “She's a heroic woman. How does she do it? She just keeps going.
“But underneath the dreams and illusions, the day to day running of her family, Amanda has quite an undercurrent of desperation. If Tom leaves, she's going to have to find more ways to make money.
“He's the moneymaker and she's always afraid he's going to leave like her husband. In spite of her good qualities, Amanda is controlling. People will come up to me after the show and tell me Amanda is just like their mother. She uses melodrama as a tactic and she's an expert at it. ‘The Glass Menagerie' is a mother's melodrama so you do what you have to do.”
— Rick Rogers