Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” opening tonight at the Fulton’s Tell Theatre, is called a memory play.
Specifically, the memory of Tom Wingfield.
He tells the story of his life back in 1937, when he was working in a shoe factory in St. Louis, living in a dingy apartment with his mother, Amanda, and his sister, Laura.
We don’t know where Tom (Zack Calhoon) is in the present day, nor do we know his circumstances as he narrates his story.
Is he to be trusted? Is any memory to be trusted?
“Tom has a lot of things happening to him (in 1937),” says Kevin Earley, director of the show. “He has to deal with it, to get through life and search for escape. And he doesn’t want to let Laura (Lexi Rabadi) down.”
Laura is a fragile soul. She is so shy, she quit high school and can’t hold a job. She stays in the apartment listening to old records and tending to her collection of glass animals — her menagerie.
Their mother, Amanda (Charis Leos), is frustrated with both of her children. She wants them to rise above their circumstances, not fall into poverty.
“She is fiercely protective of her family,” Leos says. “In her mind, she’s doing everything for her children.”
But Amanda is trapped in her own memories and miseries.
A faded southern belle, she loves to regale her children with stories of her past life and all the fine men who wanted to marry her.
She married the wrong man. Mr. Wingfield, who worked for the telephone company, was a handsome man, but not a good one.
“He left her when the children were young. She is constantly putting on them all the things done to her,” Leos says “She has saddled her children with an oppressive household.”
“So much of the play is Amanda telling Tom she doesn’t want him to be like his father,” Calhoon says. “He has to fulfill all these roles — breadwinner, protector.”
And he can never do enough in Amanda’s mind.
And as Leos says, Amanda knows where the land mines are.”
“We hurt the ones we love the best,” Earley says.
Is it any wonder Tom wants to escape, to set out for a different life?
Laura is a such a timid soul, she can’t seem to cope with modern life.
“She has the potential to be a normal girl, even with her physical defects (she has a limp),” Rabadi says. “She doesn’t have to be defined by her setbacks.”
“We’ve tried to find the strong moments she has against her mom, but she still gets plowed over,” Earley says.
Amanda has pushed Laura to go to secretarial school, which is an excruciating prospect for her. Without a husband, Laura will have to take care of herself.
But Amanda never gives up on the idea that Laura will get married.
She pushes her son to invite a co-worker from the shoe factory named Jim (Andrew Kindig) over to meet Laura. He went to school with Laura and Tom, and was a football star back in the day.
Amanda makes it feel like this visit is the second coming, calling him The Gentleman Caller. She sees the potential for an entirely different life for all of them, thanks to his visit.
“Jim is the most realistic character in the play, because he has a sense of hope,” Kindig says. “He tells Laura not to be discouraged by the weight of life. He tries to instill in her a sense of worth.”
“The Gentleman Caller has his own flaws,” Kindig says. “He always falls short.”
But his enthusiasm for life affects the entire Wingfield family.
At least that’s how Tom’s memory sees it.
Williams wrote this play when he was 24, and it is highly autobiographical.
Is his memory reliable? After an evening with the Wingfields, there is still no answer.