When the American playwright Tennessee Williams wrote “The Glass Menagerie,” it was destined to be an MGM film under the name “The Gentleman Caller.” It opened on stage in Chicago in 1944 and is widely considered to be an autobiographical account of Williams’ early adult life and family.
Tennessee’s given name was Thomas. Patch Darragh portrays Tom in the production that opens this weekend in Los Angeles. In the years leading up to 1943, Tom’s been trying on different hats – as a writer, a grown man, a closeted gay man.
"By then he’s coming around to accept himself in those myriad ways," says Darragh.
While Williams had sexual feelings for men, he held that secret very close to the vest. Darragh says the young writer could not share it with his family, especially with his mother who was very, very involved in his life.
"Tennessee was not fey in any way until he became that great iconic writer and he started wearing furs and became a much more iconic gay figure."
Veteran film and stage actor Judith Ivey plays Tom’s mother, Amanda Wingfield – a woman whose devotion to her children is so extreme, she calls herself a witch. But Ivey says there’s so much more to this woman.
"I think she’s been dealt a dirty deal in a lot of performances that I’ve witnessed," says Ivey, "because they play her without motivation in my opinion, so that all of her action seems only about self and only about her gains or her pains."
Ivey believes the driving force of the play is Amanda’s desire to help her two children, Tom and Laura.
"I mean, they’re adults, they’re not even children anymore, but she feels that obligation to let them go out into the world in a safe and wonderful way, a protected way and, in the case of Tom, a sober way. That’s her drive and I think that’s true of most mothers, you know? The bad mothers are the ones who aren’t motivated and I don’t see how you can read this play and come to the conclusion that she has no motivation to help her children."
"Scene 5 is, I think, as great a scene as any in the entire American canon probably," says Darragh. "She confronts him about his drinking. At that point, and even in New Orleans, when he says he’s following in his father’s alcoholic footsteps, I think he's still on the edge.
"And he says over the breakfast table that morning that I promise to never become a drunkard, I think he means it. And the audience, of course, there's always a little bit of a [sigh] and a little laugh because they’ve seen he’s well down that road already."
This production has traveled a few roads. It opened at the Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut and played at the Roundabout Theatre in New York before its final stop in Los Angeles.
Patch Darragh says Judith Ivey exposes different nuances in every performance. Ivey believes the run has shown her sides of Amanda that she did not know existed.
"I’ve discovered, if anything, that she can laugh at more and enjoy her children more than I certainly thought when I started this play a year and a half ago. I never thought of her as a big crier, but I’ve discovered places where she can be moved to tears because she’s so desperate or so in love with these two children and so wants to make everything right for them," says Ivey. When asked if Amanda loves these children too much, Ivey says, laughing, "Oh yeah. She needs a job. She needs some distraction.
And Ivey reflects on her own life.
"Every night, when I take my little party shoes off, I secretly thank my mother for not being like Amanda. She was never one to cling or hold on or meddle."
“The Glass Menagerie” continues at the Mark Taper Forum through October 17.