Family is a powerful force in the lives of most everyone, providing either love and support or an oppressive source of negativity and discouragement. That tenuous dynamic formed the heart of legendary playwright Tennessee Williams’ classic play “The Glass Menagerie” when it debuted to great acclaim in 1944, and has kept it relevant all the way to the present.
A powerful new production of “Menagerie” is currently running at A Noise Within theater through April 26, starring Deborah Strang as Amanda Wingfield in a role she previously played with ANW in 1997 at its original Glendale location. Amanda is the eccentric and addled matriarch of a family that’s been fading from earlier glories ever since her husband abandoned her, son Tom and daughter Laura 16 years before, and their lives are shaken when a “gentleman caller” named Jim O’Connor from Laura’s past shows up one night to woo her as a favor to Tom.
According to actor Kasey Mahaffy, who plays the enigmatic Jim, “Menagerie” has had a stirring effect on audiences young and old already in this run — largely due to the passion Williams brought to his writing, as the play was a key means of his ability to deal with his own difficult upbringing. He feels that the play’s messages on family and on how individuals deal with their dreams draws such strongly universal reactions that the play could be presented in a straightforward fashion close to its original 1937 design, rather than radically reinvented in the vein of some other ANW productions.
“For me, I love turning scripts on their heads, but I don’t think it would have been of service to make this set today or in medieval times,” says Mahaffy. “The language and other aspects are very much of 1937. We do lots of student matinees of our shows for high school students, and never, ever have we had the response we have with this show.
“The students are wild, so into it, because Williams is dealing with universal themes that everyone can understand,” adds Mahaffy. “The reason this show has been successful for 80 years is that it has intrinsic scenes that affect everyone — the elderly associate with the memories of it all, and of the time when you had to live with your mother and family. Kids love it so much because the themes are so universal, like having dreams in high school, problems with parents, dreams bigger than you are, or a relationship with a sibling that isn’t always what you want it to be. Audiences from young to elderly are leaning forward into this thing.”
Mahaffy is one of four ANW Resident Artists in the cast, with Rafael Goldstein taking on the central role of Tom Wingfield, who draws upon his memories to serve as the play’s narrator. Erika Soto rounds out the leads as Laura, who has allowed herself to fail in life due to poor self-esteem and a permanent limp caused by childhood polio.
The production is directed by ANW co-founder Geoff Elliott, who portrayed Tom in the ensemble’s 1997 production and is excited to take the reins of the overall show this time around. He’s also glad that Strang has returned to reprise the role of Amanda, giving her a chance to deliver a deeper and more age-appropriate turn in the role this time around.
“’The Glass Menagerie’s’ poetic nature, its humor, and its heartbreak make it one of my favorite plays, and certainly my favorite Tennessee Williams play,” says Elliott. “The autobiographical nature of the story and its alignment to Williams’ own life are fascinating to me. I have for several years been passionate about rediscovering the play more from a director’s perspective than from the viewpoint of an actor in the cast as I played Tom Wingfield in our previous production.
“Just as importantly, I want to share Deborah’s Amanda with audiences,” he continues. “She was wonderful 20 years ago, but probably too young. She is now the perfect age and her sensibilities as an artist and the life experience she has gained will combine to give our audiences a very special performance in this key role. Also, the other three actors in the production are three of my favorite performers in the world, so thus far it has been a joyful experience.”
Even though the times have drastically changed since the late 1930s setting of “The Glass Menagerie,” Elliott still believes there is a lot to take away about human relationships from the classic work.
“I believe audiences will experience a deep sense of empathy for the courage, humor and resolve that the Wingfields demonstrate in their attempt to support one another,” notes Elliott. “Their foibles and missteps are also so very human that I believe every member of the audience will see themselves in aspects of these complicated and conflicted people. It is a play that will stay with you long after you have exited the theater.”
“The Glass Menagerie” runs through April 26 at A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. Tickets are $25 to $77. Call (626) 356-3100 or visit anoisewithin.org.