Perhaps only Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” can rival it in terms of sheer popularity and accessibility. Since it opened in Chicago in 1945, “The Glass Menagerie” has been performed countless times on stages everywhere, from high school drama departments to community playhouses to Broadway. Now, Williams’ autobiographical tale about the Wingfield family is coming to Guild Hall’s newly refurbished John Drew Theater and stars Amy Irving as Amanda, the shrewish mother who lives a life fueled by nostalgia.
There are numerous plot lines to both the play and this particular production. First you have a director/actor pairing that promises good chemistry. Harris Yulin is directing and he’s worked with Irving in the past, though not in the director’s role. The two starred in a made-for-television movie in the late 70’s.
“He’s so sensitive to the actors, being an actor himself,” said Irving of Yulin’s directing style. “He communicates in a way that instills freedom and confidence and also challenges you.”
Yulin said Irving has been great to work with so far in rehearsals.
“You always want an actor to be responsive to you and to the material. You want them to be true to that, but to be their own person, to find their own lifeblood,” said Yulin.
And for Irving the material has added significance. She is no stranger to the play, having played the role of Laura, the daughter, in a production in Sante Fe that also featured her mother, Priscilla Pointer, as Amanda. Irving said her mom, who will be flying out to attend the opening at John Drew, has refrained from playing the role of acting coach.
“She’s not giving me advice, she’s just being very encouraging,” said Irving. “I remember her performance so well. She was so good. Certain lines have stuck in my brain. I’ve had to make sure that I’m my own Amanda and not hers.”
Irving is clearly excited to be playing the role and said she’s come to the part with her own ideas about who Amanda is as a character. And as a mother herself, she said she definitely relates to certain aspects of the character.
“I certainly know about prioritizing your children,” said Irving.
Amanda is the quintessential Southern matriarch, clinging to the “Old South” though now living in the Midwest, as she tries to marry off her physically and emotionally crippled daughter, Laura.
“She’s this force of nature,” said Irving. “I’ve never played a woman quite as complex. She keeps things moving even when things are falling apart around her. And as strong as she is, she’s also very fragile.”
Irving and Harris both remarked on the range of emotions present in Amanda, and in the play itself.
“It is so full of pain, it’s true,” said Yulin. “But it’s also full of humor. It’s a play of such powerful ambiance – it’s the essence of family.”
“Through her reliving the past as a belle of the ball, her emotions run the gamut from joy to complete despair. It’s funny, tragic – it’s all over the place. It’s like running a marathon with so many valleys and hills.”
The work is without a doubt William’s most autobiographical. It began as a short story, was then adapted by MGM studios in the late 30’s for the big screen under the title “Gentleman Caller” and finally ended up as the play that generations have come to know as “The Glass Menagerie.” Yulin said he was embarrassed, that as a veteran actor, he had never worked on a production of the Williams masterpiece, though he was of course familiar with the work.
“Getting into it is like opening a door and walking into a room that’s only been described to you,” he said.
Yulin and Irving both used the word “honored” to describe how it felt to be working on a Williams play.
“It’s a privilege. I’m savoring it every day, eating it like little spoonfuls,” said Irving.
Yulin said he was sure the audiences would leave John Drew happy, but if there was one thing he hoped for, it was that they would leave with a new appreciation for the playwright.
“I hope they’ll say, ‘God, what a beautiful person Tennessee Williams was’.”