Dysfunctional like us

The Glass Menagerie - Tennessee Williams

On Sept 7, I went to see The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, produced by one of our local theater companies. It was one of my most powerful theatrical experience of the past few years. I have never seen this play before, nor the movie, but I understand why this simple four-actor play, premiered in 1944, catapulted the theretofore unknown playwright to sudden fame.

Although the story Williams tells is very personal for him it is also universal. It’s set during the Depression Era in St. Louis, but with little adjustments, it could’ve happened any time since, in any place in Europe or North America. The events mentioned are time sensitive, but the human interactions, their entire knot of misunderstandings, miscommunications, and general unhappiness have the ring of truth for any time period. 

There is the obnoxious older mother Amanda, who loves her grown-up children dearly but can’t stop nagging them. You’ve met the type: silly, arrogant and ignorant, she always knows best. Her gnawing fear for her daughter’s and her own uncertain future makes her extremely disagreeable, querulous, even physically abusive, and the actress conveyed her character’s abominable clinginess with marvelous skills.

There is the mentally fragile and physically crippled daughter Laura. Already in her twenties, Laura is painfully shy, unable to work or study, unable to form any social connections. Her only refuge is her collection of glass figurines, her glass menagerie. Only the little glass animals make her happy, and the director made this perfectly clear through the fantastic light display and the amazing acting of the actress playing Laura. Even though she is silent for most of the play, her face and body language speak volumes.

The only bread-winner in the house is Laura’s brother Tom, who is fed up with his dysfunctional family, his poverty, and his dull life. He’s young and he yearns for adventures so much, he talks about the bombing of Guernica in Spain with longing. He wants desperately to leave home, go somewhere, anywhere, even knowing that his family would be left destitute without him. He simply can’t care anymore.

There is one more personage in the play, a gentleman guest Jim, but he only appears in the second act, and his function in the play is purely supportive: he allows others to shine. 

Despite the depressive, hopeless content, the play holds some humor as well. We all recognize ourselves or someone we loved in there, and the impression is bittersweet. The author doesn’t give any answers but he surely raises a number of questions. He also invites us to feel compassion towards his characters and towards each other. Yes, we all have flaws. We all stumble. We are all dysfunctional but we all deserve a little love anyway.