The Pittsburgh Public Theater’s season has begun, and last week amidst a wide array of entertainment obligations, I went to see PPT’s opening show, Tennessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie.  This is a play near and dear to me, so I was very excited to see it as the opening show for their anniversary season.

I first read this play in an 11th grade “drama as literature” class. While I never saw myself as like Tom or Laura or any of the characters in the play, it holds a valuable place in my past, marking a realization that the theater was a place where I both longed to be, and belonged. My family moved from Pittsburgh to Columbus a month before starting that year’s high school, and in this English class, I found a home like few other of my classes offered. With the first few lines of the show, I was transported back to that 2nd floor classroom at Walnut Ridge High School.

Then and now, I found the dialogue of the play as intoxicating as can be, and while I’m far from a great writer, literature like this play helped me fall in love with writing. It is amazing to me that given the number of classes that make up a high school curriculum, the two classes which I remember most fondly, were both English classes with a heavy emphasis on writing.

In the PPT production, I was especially in love with two performances- Tom played by Fisher Neal, and Laura played by Cathryn Wake. Tom continually reminded me of my past but also of the fact (unlike the character) that I know who I am, and I felt as if I came to see Laura in an entirely different light than before. She is far more damaged emotionally than physically, and this was a new surprise to me. If you had asked me before this viewing, I would have only described her as a cripple. My home life then was hell, and like Tom, I found my own escape— for me in Dance as he used poetry. Perhaps I was blinded to the depth of Laura before  because like Tom, I was so caught up in my own fantasy world that I wasn’t really present. If I had been, it may have killed me.

While my husband is an army brat, and lived all across the globe, his parents were real Southerners, and his mother more like Mrs Wingfield than my own mother was. Yet, as I watched, I could see my mother there too and her brokenness stifling her children even as she thinks she is loving and trying to care for them. Reviews of Lynne Wintersteller’s performance have been glowing, but for me didn’t quite make the mark. The degree to which her interests were all self serving, while she expressed her own pain upon others wasn’t harsh enough to do the character justice. Mrs Wingfield doesn’t care about Tom or Laura, but only herself, and she is terrified of being trapped forever caring for Laura.

A friend had described Menagerie to me recently as “Gay 101,” and a simple Google search can reveal many interesting insights (such as this or this) about Tom’s sexuality. I really had ever thought f it before on the one hand, and on the other, I immediately knew how right this description was. In my own experience, I never identified as gay per se, rather it was just glaringly evident to myself and everyone else, that I was different, didn’t fit in and I didn’t belong like the other boys. I think this describes William’s Tom as well. It isn’t that he is gay but he is so queer— so outside the status quo- and he has no ability or support to nurture and embrace that, at least at that point in his life.

A second dynamic of the play I hadn’t thought about before, but which wouldn’t let me escape as I watched, was a fantasy about Tom’s romantic interest in the gentleman caller, Jim. I experienced a crushing sadness for Tom, as the gentleman caller tries to mentor and correct Tom, rather than see him as an equal. In Jim’s defense, he is as unable as any other character in the play in discerning what he wants from what he believes he is supposed to want and pursue. But he is never going to return Tom’s feelings, and Tom  is likely to have a history of failed romances with unavailable straight men. Generally speaking, gay men are often so preoccupied with straight men and I think we always fail to grasp why that is. I think Tom is especially crushed to learn that the caller has a fiancé, not so much because it proves how unavailable he is to Tom, but because it demonstrates how there was never any real friendship there between them to start with.

Since seeing the play, I’ve spent some time contemplating the figurines of the menagerie. These were far more central in my memory of the show, and I’ve been exploring why they seemed less so in this production. On stage, I experienced them as not central, and clearly not center stage, ever. The play has layers to be sure. There is a narrator who is also a character within, and the menagerie serves as a mini representation of the frozen characters. The play being acted out within the play being acted out within the play. A poignant and memorable moment of this production, is as Laura explains away the unicorn’s loss of his (or her?) uniqueness. This dialogue could not have been delivered better.

My husband found it all so very depressing and full of despair, but not me. For me, the time period of the play marks the turning point where Tom’s journey out into the world is inevitable, and outside of this smothering, life sucking and overbearing family, he would begin to explore and find the person who is deep within him. And did I say enough about the poetry of the dialogue? There is such beauty and concrete imagery in the sparse and meaningful words chosen by Williams. This makes the story’s despair palatable and romantic for me. I love this show and continue to love this show.

PPT’s production of the Glass Menagerie runs until November 2nd.

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