WASHINGTON — Few playwrights defined 20th century theater like Tennessee Williams, from “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947) to “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1955) to “Sweet Birth of Youth” (1959).
But none of those stage classics would have even been possible without the 1944 play that put Williams on the map, his haunting, bittersweet memory play for the ages: “The Glass Menagerie.”
Now, it’s your chance to see the classic story at the historic Ford’s Theatre, now through Feb. 21.
“More than 70 years since its first Broadway run, ‘The Glass Menagerie’ earns the distinction of being the first Williams play produced at Ford’s Theatre,” Ford’s Theatre Director Paul Tetreault says.
“One of the things about doing a famous play is we all grow up with certain attitudes toward the characters. (But) one of the best things I ever read was on the wall of the Royal Court Theatre in London. … It basically says, ‘All new plays should be treated as classics. All classics should be treated as new plays,’ which I think is absolutely brilliant,” actress Madeleine Potter tells WTOP.
This approach of an intertwined past and present — treating new plays as classics, and classics as new plays — works especially well for this particular production, which plays out as one long memory. From the opening narration, we’re promised: “I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”
We meet the Wingfield family who struggles to make ends meet in Depression-era St. Louis. The entire play takes place in the family’s tiny tenement, where lights flicker at the negligence of the power bill. It’s narrated by the son Tom (Tom Story), a downtrodden warehouse worker who goes out all hours of the night claiming he’s at the movies, but staggering back home with booze on his breath.
“Poverty is, for me, one of the most important elements of the actual setting. This was during the Depression. People had nothing. So they are living in very reduced circumstances. … Poverty is a thing that, unless experienced, is difficult for people to imagine. So in a work of art of this magnitude, it’s our duty to try to live all of those things to the best of our abilities,” Potter says.
Inside this dwelling, Southern matriarch Amanda (Potter) bares the scars of marital separation, fueling a desire to ensure that her daughter Laura (Jenna Sokolowski) doesn’t repeat her mistakes.
“The father left when the children were small and the mother, in the 1920s as a very young woman with two small children, left with almost no options of employment. … The mother is inventive and extremely determined. … But she also has her children. She has to be forceful for their sake.”
This forcefulness becomes an obsession to find a suitable Gentleman Caller for her shy, invalid daughter, tasking Tom to invite his co-worker Jim O’Connor (Thomas Keegan) over for dinner. Dressed to impress, we feel the mother’s desperation to find a better life for her children’s generation. But unforeseen events create a combustible night that Tom will never forget.
“A 20-year marriage can end in a 15-minute conversation, but you don’t generally go into that conversation expecting that will be the case. … Tom is attempting to understand and keeps having to revisit it because he needs to understand what happened and when,” Potter says.
Thus, the entire thing unfolds from Tom’s memory. He states outright in his opening monologue that parts are purposely “unrealistic,” namely the famous waltz at the end of Act Two, which is gracefully exaggerated in its stylized movements. As such, Victrola music assumes a larger-than-life presence, as do symbolic objects, like the “menagerie” of glass figurines that Laura delicately collects.
Director Mark Ramont converts Ford’s Theatre into an arena of recollection, with images of faces projected onto a rear curtain, waving with nostalgic ripples like memories blowing in the breeze.
“It’s fascinating that his speeches as an older man looking back have some of the rhythm and language of his mother and even quotes her. … Any relationship, when then looked upon from a span of years, means something completely different,” Potter says.
Potter, who spent bits of her childhood in Georgetown and Capitol Hill before moving to New York and London, says she feels the same way about returning to Washington, D.C.
“You never forget the architecture of a place. … It’s really extraordinarily like bits of the play in that we don’t really have control over memories. I mean, Dylan Thomas’ great remark about ‘the memories of childhood have no order or no end.’ I will come around a corner and know exactly where I need to go, but not on a conscious level, and then suddenly the picture fills in. It’s extraordinary.”
But memory isn’t the only theme in the play. Williams always works on multiple levels, including an ongoing study between the poetic age of the harvest and the claustrophobic age of the machine.
“John Millington Synge talks about it too in ‘Playboy of the Western World,’ when the harvest is a memory only and the straw has been turned into bricks. … All three of these people in this family have massive, extraordinary imaginations, and they’re forced into this gray, tiny tenement.”
Despite the doom and gloom of their daily existence, a stubborn hope permeates the characters.
“I think this is deeply in Tennessee Williams, from what I understand of him. … This notion of this Emily Dickinson poem, ‘Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the song without the words and never stops it all.’ … You can’t choose your circumstances, but you can choose how you dwell within them. I think she wakes up every morning and goes to war for that,” she says.
Emily Dickinson, Dylan Thomas, John Millington Synge. Potter can quote them all with great ease, plucking their wise literary words out of thin air with the aid of her own steel trap memory.
“When I read something that strikes me to the core, I tend to remember it,” she says.
Ford’s Theatre audiences can say the same thing after “Menagerie.”
Click here for ticket information. Hear the full interview with Madeleine Potter below:
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