For Studio Tenn Theatre Company’s award-winning revival of Tennessee Williams’s classic play The Glass Menagerie, Artistic Director Matt Logan brings tangibility to this metaphor by incorporating windows and water features into a reimagined architectural set design that connects the literal to the literary.
The four-person memory play is considered the most autobiographical work of iconic Southern Gothic playwright Tennessee Williams and was the first success of his storied career.
Studio Tenn’s production was named “Best Revival of an American Classic” by Nashville theatre critic Martin Brady in 2011. The company’s 2016 staging features the full original cast: Eric Pasto-Crosby as Tom, Nan Gurley as Amanda, Ellie Sikes as Laura, and Brent Maddox as the gentleman caller, Jim.
Logan notes that although the characters are undeniably inspired by the lives of Williams, his mother, and his sister in the 1930s, The Glass Menagerie is not meant to be a strictly biographical account.
“If it were, the audience would be removed from it,” Logan said. Instead, he has found reactions to the play are deeply personal—including his own. Upon first reading as a high school student, Logan said, “I remember thinking, I know these people,” he said. “It’s a very specific account, but it taps into something universal.”
However, “the transportive quality of [Williams’s] brilliant writing can get lost easily if the focus of the staging is too biographical,” Logan said. “It becomes a museum piece,” which distances the audience and diminishes “the potency of what the writer put on the page.”
While Logan’s props and wardrobe will include some Depression-era artifacts, they are not to overwhelm the dreamlike ambience of the set, meant to evoke an emotional landscape as much as a physical one.
In Studio Tenn’s rendering, a faux brick wall of deep murky green encases a series of oversized glass panels, lending a voyeuristic quality to the Wingfield apartment, often depicted as cramped and dingy. Water cascading down the glass panes creates the effect of a drizzling rain.
The costumes’ soft colors and flowing fabrics impart a “luminous, almost ghost-like appearance,” Logan said.
The juxtaposition of period artifacts against a modern backdrop provides visual dissonance that “keeps the story from being tethered to a specific location or time,” Logan said. After all, the characters aren’t haunting a place, but a mind.
Williams expressly invites interpretation in the stage directions at the beginning of the play:
“The scene is memory and is therefore nonrealistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart.”
For Logan, refreshing the design felt more authentic than taking a textbook approach to the production. “To hone in on the emotional core and find innovative ways of expressing that is to be true to the playwright’s intent,” he said.
Williams left a legacy of inciting creativity in others, both through his poetic writing style and through his last will and testament. As a memorial to his grandfather, the Reverend Walter E. Dakin, Williams left his copyrights to the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, with the directive that a fund be established to encourage creative writing. Licensing fees for his plays support the Sewanee Writers Conference and the Tennessee Williams Fellowships, which bring leading writers and performers to the school each year. Many of Williams’s own works have become mainstays of American literature and education curricula nationwide.
Through a partnership with TPAC’s Humanities Outreach Tennessee (HOT), Studio Tenn is putting on five weekday performances for more than 1,700 area high school students in addition to its ten public shows.
Balancing historical context with present-day relevance is a challenge that exists both in the classroom and on the stage. For artists and educators alike, sometimes it takes shattering preconceptions to reveal anew “that delicate line of poetry that people connect with,” Logan said. “That’s what keeps this piece alive.”