In The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams' first success and now on stage at A Noise Within theater in Pasadena, a still young man, Tom Wingfield, relives the memories of his last months, living through the Depression with what was left of his family after his father had run out on them. He returns to the scene of this crime-of-the-heart, compelled perhaps as much by a need to justify abandoning the two most important women in his life, as his father had, as to recapture a “truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion,” as he tells the audience in the opening moments of the play. “Yes,” he warns us, “I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician.” But don't believe him. Coming from the soul of perhaps America's greatest poet-dramatist, the graceful rhythms of Williams' rueful elegy are truly theatrical magic.
Tom remembers his loving, yet overbearing mother, Amanda, surviving the gloom of
her forsaken life on reminiscences of a proper, well-mannered past that may never have been as genteel as she tries so hard to imagine. He has an aching love of his
handicapped younger sister, Laura, who escapes her intense sense of inadequacy by
mothering a collection of sparkling figurines, most particularly a unicorn – that
mythical symbol of unattainable desire – a glass menagerie, if you will. And then there's the “Gentleman Caller” (Amanda's phrase), Tom's friend from the shoe factory, Jim O'Connor, who Tom invited to dinner one evening to satisfy – you might say, shut up, his mother who needs a suitor for Laura. Jim is a young buck with dreams of breaking into the big time, being a “player,” on the world stage – mostly by applying the confidence he has to believe he's gaining from the course public speaking he's taking.
It's a brash, show-offy color that brings a cold-water splash of reality into the monotony unrealizable neediness that fills the Wingfield's down-at heel apartment in St. Louis.
But what drives this tale of rueful romantic yearning is Tom's craving for a poetry in life that breaths adventure. He longs to be free of the smothering delusions of the women he loves. Amanda and Laura, fill their lives imagining their own “could be's” and “only if's.” But they have no idea of the passions that are driving Tom away from them – passions even he has trouble granting himself. His need to be free of them breeds a corrosive guilt towards mother and sister, feed his anger at life's cruel niceties. He knows they could never, would never, allow or accept him for what he is, what he wants, what he would be.
Played out on a simple setting, young Tom's memories “turn back time…” to a
“quaint period… when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a
school for the blind. Their eyes had failed them, or they had failed their eyes, and so they were having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy.” Williams' The Glass Menagerie refract the many facets of love-hate, alone-togetherness that seem so vivid almost a century later. And A Noise Within is doing a service allowing us to consider it's truths in these troubled times.