Secrets, guilt, illusions

Obsessions surround The Glass Menagerie. Ignition Theatre’s staging of the Tennessee Williams play from Thursday, March 12, at the Scott Block Theatre in Red Deer will be the realization of a long-held dream for artistic director Matt Grue.

Obsessions surround The Glass Menagerie.

Ignition Theatre’s staging of the Tennessee Williams play from Thursday, March 12, at the Scott Block Theatre in Red Deer will be the realization of a long-held dream for artistic director Matt Grue.

He’s wanted to direct this Southern Gothic family drama ever since he first studied the script as a theatre student at Red Deer College — and now it’s happening. Ignition Theatre is co-producing the play with Prime Stock Theatre.

“I became obsessed with it,” said Grue, who senses a deeper level of meaning beneath the play’s dialogue. “A tremendous amount was left unsaid. That’s why I find it fascinating.”

Williams, one of the most acclaimed American playwrights of the 20th century, was also obsessed with this largely autobiographical tale about secrets, guilt and illusions.

He wrote versions of the plot again and again, in different guises, until 1944 when The Glass Menagerie premiered in New York and became his first big hit.

Grue said Williams, like Tom, his fictional alter-ego in the play, was beset with guilt about leaving his mother and troubled sister behind to pursue his writing career.

Just as the character of Tom recalls the past in memories, “like a lost soul in purgatory who’s doomed to relive (events) again and again,” Grue believes it was necessary for Williams to repeatedly explore the same themes in his fiction to reconcile his feelings about his own family history.

This award-winning play is about a fragile balance that exists between reality and fantasy for a controlling single mother, Amanda Wingfield, her fragile daughter, Laura, and son Tom.

The plot line hangs on Amanda’s hopes that a “gentleman caller,” invited to dinner by Tom, will become romantically interested in Laura. This would allow Tom to free himself of family responsibilities and pursue his own interests.

A family tragedy is precipitated when the characters’ various secrets come spilling out. The Wingfields’ carefully balanced world comes crashing down, like a series of dominoes, said Grue.

His aim in directing a play that’s been mounted “tens of thousands of times” over the years is to do something a little different with the material. Through innovative staging techniques, Grue hopes to shine a new light on some of the “puzzle pieces,” so the audience will better understand Williams’s themes and meanings.

The Glass Menagerie has obvious parallels with the playwright’s life. Tom is actually named after Williams, whose birth name was Thomas; Laura’s nickname is Blue Roses, which references Williams’s real sister, Rose; and Laura and Tom had attended Soldan High School, named for Williams’s actual high school in his St. Louis, Mo.

The fictional siblings also have a domineering mother — as did Williams and his older sister, Rose, a pretty and gregarious girl, who turned out much more troubled than Laura.

Rose Isabel Williams was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young adult. After several failed therapies, she was subject to a botched lobotomy, authorized by her mother, Edwina, after Tennessee Williams was already a writer in New York.

The procedure left Rose permanently disabled and Williams stricken. He paid for his sister’s institutional bills his whole life, and his alcoholism is thought to stem from guilt about Rose’s condition.

This sense of responsibility carries over in The Glass Menagerie, when Tom declares, “Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!”

Grue believes the play has endured because it suggests the “mysteries” of the human condition.

Also, everyone has regrets and familial issues that can be explored through the imperfect and complex characters Williams created.

For instance, Amanda is often painted as a villain, but Grue believes she’s no different than many parents who try to protect their children through misguided means.

Laura is usually seen as vulnerable and detached from reality, but Grue believes she has the clarity to recognize the secrets her mother and brother are hiding. This weighs heavily on her, as Laura tries to become a buffer between her mother and brother, to ease family tensions.

“Poor girl. She’s trying to keep all these secrets. … Fantasy is the only coping mechanism she has.”

Grue feels he has a strong cast lined up to tackle the play: his former RDC classmate and now professional actor in Vancouver, Sebastian Kroon will play Tom. Josephine Christensen is Amanda, Kirstie Gallant will portray Laura, and Evan Hill is the Gentleman Caller.

Assistant director Anna Pinder is also on board to learn the ropes and help Grue with the character analysis. He said she provides “an extra set of eyes and ears,” which, when tackling a Tennessee Williams play, is always welcome.

The Glass Menagerie runs March 12 to 14 and 17 to 21 at the Scott Block. Tickets to the 7:30 p.m. shows are $27 ($23 students/seniors), or $20 for all tickets on Tuesday nights, from ignitiontheatre.ca, Sunworks or at the door.

lmichelin@bprda.wpengine.com