My Tennessee Valentine, Part 1: Invitation to the Party

yoda and glasses menagerie

“The Glasses Menagerie” with Yoda

It’s two weeks until The Glass Menagerie opens and there’s a small tribe of us hard at work over at 10th and Main.

Not that I’m complaining. This is a labor of love. Even the family dog has been pressed into service, listening to me run my lines.

For those of us who volunteer at Richmond Civic Theatre, the benefits are pretty darn amazing. It’s a chance to hang out with friends and make new ones. To face the challenge of giving our best to the audience by painting flats, learning new dance steps or memorizing pages of a script. I’m often gobsmacked at the depth of talent folks have in designing lighting, sound and sets, rustling up props, finding just the right costume, bringing words to life, stage managing and directing—often while working or going to school full time. All this in order to share a play with an audience of friends and strangers alike.

But for me, there’s another motivation for being in a show. Well, not just any show. This show.

You see, I am in love with Tennessee Williams. I fell hard for him when I was in high school. My other misfit friends and I saw pieces of ourselves in his tragic characters and dreamed of sharing an apartment in New Orleans. Turned out moving to Bloomington, Indiana was a lot easier! I love his masterful way with words. (You just wait until you hear Tom’s opening monologue or Amanda’s storytelling!) I am in love with the multi-faceted characters he creates, each one harboring a seed of secret longing that aches to burst free from its casing.

Then there’s Tennessee Williams’ courage in showing us the raw emotion of broken dreams and impossible optimism–and trusting the audience to go along for the ride. The world of The Glass Menagerie is not our world and yet the theme of claiming one’s true identity is at the core of the human experience and one I suspect we can all relate to.

For an actor, the members of the Wingfield family and the gentleman caller, Jim O’Connor, are not easy characters to play. And yet, the humanity in which Jim, Laura, Tom and Amanda are depicted give each performer the chance to find the heart of his or her character. The character I play, Amanda Wingfield, is a single mother who wants what is best for her twenty-something-year-old children. She is a woman motivated by love. Love for her children. Love for the past. Even love for her husband, a handsome telephone man who fell in love with long distance and deserted the family 16 years earlier. The way Amanda expresses this desire is, well, let’s just say it’s problematic. Hers is a fierce mother-love that threatens to suffocate the people she holds most dear. She can be exasperating and cruel one minute and innocent and charming the next.

Maybe you know somebody like that? Maybe you even see a little of that sweet complexity in yourself?

Tennessee Williams was no stranger to sweet complexity. In his career and in his personal life, he experienced dramatic highs and lows. The Glass Menagerie, Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and The Night of the Iguana are considered some of the best drama every written. Period. I am a fan, too, of his one-act plays contained in 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, including “Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen”—which has one of the longest titles I know of and which I chose as my first directing project. And then there are the infamous lows: his troubled relationship with his family that we see alluded to in The Glass Menagerie, the heartbreak over his sister Rose’s diagnosis of schizophrenia, his financial troubles, the discrimination he experienced during his lifetime because of his identity as a gay man, and his struggles with drug addiction that eventually led to his death in 1983, some twenty years after he wrote his most critically-acclaimed plays.

To say that he wrote as he lived would be to gloss over the pain he experienced and the pain he inadvertently caused others. I don’t believe that artists have to suffer to create good art; they don’t have to be limited to the category of saint or jerk, either. However, when I read his words, I am so moved by his beauty, generosity, honesty and humor whose source is, I know, hard won. He has captured an aspect of the American experience and given it back to us as art that lasts. And so, it’s in this way that Tennessee Williams continues to inspire me—along with countless others—to wrestle with words, to love, and to live in all its messy wonder.

I am so happy to be invited to the party at the Wingfields’ and hope you will join us there, too!

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RCT Cast: Jordan Wolfe, Chloe Burton, Jennie Kiffmeyer and Dustin Summan

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
September 15-16 & 22-23 at 7:30pm, Sept. 24 at 2:00pm
By special arrangement with Dramatists Play Service, Inc.
Directed by David Cobine
1003 East Main Street
Richmond, IN 47374
Tickets are $18. Box office: (765) 962-1816 or online

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