In preparation for his production of Tennessee Williams’ memory play “The Glass Menagerie,” Studio Theatre Associate Professor of Theatre Jeff Grace spent Fall Term researching the playwright’s life. Grace spent Fall Term in Williams’ hometown of St. Louis, visiting places immortalized in his work.
“[Williams] talks about a dance hall that was across the alley and of course, that dance hall doesn’t exist anymore,” Grace said. “But it was fun to be able to like trace his steps through St. Louis and see the houses where he grew up and see the cemetery where they buried him.”
“The Glass Menagerie”, which opened in Studio Theatre on Wednesday, May 9, is presented as the recollection of a narrator named Tom, played by sophomore Riley Nelson, who is based on Williams himself. The story centers on the narrator’s sister Laura, played by sophomore Jo Hill, whose limp makes her debilitatingly anxious and self-conscious. Laura is based on Williams’ older sister Rose, who had schizophrenia.
“It’s the memory of the character Tom but also Tennessee Williams’ memory, mostly about how he viewed his sister at that point in his life and also about how he viewed his mom,” Grace said.
While Williams was attending college in Iowa, his parents had Rose lobotomized. Williams did not make it home in time to stop the procedure. He served as Rose’s caregiver for the rest of his life.
“He wrote the play about [Rose] and how he remembered her, the way that his mom treated him and her, how he grew up with her. He refers to her a lot in the play,” Grace said. “At the very end of the play, it’s all about him trying to get her out of his memory and he just can’t. Tennessee Williams in his life never forgave himself.”
Williams’ father and younger brother are written out of the play entirely to focus exclusively on the relationship between sister, brother and mother. While the people and events are fictionalized, the play is based on Williams’ memories of growing up with Rose in St. Louis.
Freshman Emma Bohman who plays overbearing mother Amanda, believes Laura’s nickname in the play — “Blue Roses” — is a direct reference to Rose. “I think [Williams] just felt so horrible and so guilt-stricken that he wrote Laura in this way that represented his sister,” Bohman said.
Bohman, who has dealt with an anxiety disorder, saw parts of herself reflected in Laura. She appreciates Williams’ compelling, sympathetic treatment of mental illness in “The Glass Menagerie.”
“Coming from someone who has mental illnesses, I think he writes it very well,” Bohman said. “I really appreciate the amount of care he puts into that and making every single character very complex.”
The impression of memory is channeled through simple staging and costumes. To Grace, the feeling is in the small things, like Amanda and Laura’s dresses which have bright colors and little texture. Bohman feels that this speaks true for dreams in general, which are often void of smaller details.
“We’re all wearing very bright colors,” she said. “Oftentimes in memories, you don’t really remember specific patterns or things, you just remember the shape or the color of what someone’s wearing. Nothing is ever super-duper detailed.”
By giving the characters specific color palettes (Laura in blue and Amanda in green and gold), Grace creates the illusion of Tom remembering in color. The stage itself is spare, stripped of all nonessential items. The entire play is performed on a platform stage, which almost seems to float. Tom steps on and off this stage as he alternates between narrator and figure in his own memories.
“It’s not just the stage, the entire production team, we talked about how everything’s from the perspective of Tom. What does Tom remember?” Grace said.
Dim lighting and Tom’s narration help the audience feel as though they are viewing another time through the eyes of another person. Grace said the process of creating this living memory has been incredibly pleasant.
“We just did tech weekend this past weekend and everyone was prepared and ready to go, and we stopped and enjoyed our work and just reveled in the fact that we created something together,” he said. “It’s been completely collaborative.”
“The Glass Menagerie” will run from May 9-12 at 7:30 p.m. in CFA Studio Theatre. Tickets are available an hour before each performance or through reservation by calling 309-341-7472.