Troupe to stage unique version of 'Glass Menagerie'

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Aaron Lindberg/Journal-World Photo

Kansas University English professor Amy Devitt, as Amanda Wingfield, left, and Aron Carlson as Tom Wingfield, run through a scene from "The Glass Menagerie." English Alternative Theatre will open the play Wednesday at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H.

Tennessee Williams' 1944 play "The Glass Menagerie" is an American theater classic.

It's one of the most often-produced, frequently viewed shows, and three movie versions of it exist.

But the variation that English Alternative Theatre will stage this week at the Lawrence Arts Center will be unlike any "Glass Menagerie" audiences have seen before.

The play follows Tom, his mother, Amanda, and his sister, Laura, who have lived alone together in a small St. Louis apartment since their father walked out years earlier. Tom is the breadwinner, who works at a shoe factory during the day but escapes to "the movies" at night. His mother's constant meddling threatens to drive him away, but his sense of responsibility to his family keeps him from leaving. All the while, his frail sister tends to her "glass menagerie," a collection of delicate glass animals.

'With fresh eyes'

Although director Paul Lim's interpretation remains true to the original script, alterations in the presentation cast it in an entirely different light.

The boldest change: Lim sets the play in a dark, mysterious wharf in present-day Amsterdam with a gay bar off to one side. Although the production is still a memory play that revisits 1939 St. Louis, Tom Wingfield reveals his story -- 30 odd years later -- from this dive.

It's not an unfaithful change, Lim says, given that the play is loosely based on Williams' own life.

Past Event

"Glass Menagerie" by Tennessee Williams

  • Wednesday, April 16, 2003, 8 p.m.
  • Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St., Lawrence
  • All ages / $6 - $10

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"Tennessee Williams way back then was a gay young man, and I think in the play, when he tells the mother that he's always going out to the movies, he really isn't; he's going off in search of partners in gay bars and elsewhere," says Lim, a KU English professor and artistic director of English Alternative Theatre. "This is all now public knowledge, given his letters, journals and autobiographies, so I don't know that the public will be entirely startled by this interpretation. But in case people didn't know, it will be viewing the play with fresh eyes."

Unlike most productions, Lim assumes more than a few years have passed since 1939, when Wingfield (the narrator of the play) leaves his family in St. Louis, and the time he tells audiences the story of why he left. At least 30 years have passed in the Lawrence Alternative Theatre production, so Lim cast two actors in the role of Tom -- one plays the young Tom; the other plays the older Tom.

Following the lead of most productions of "The Glass Menagerie," Lim has left out the Brechtian legends scripted by Williams but, in the spirit of what the playwright intended, Lim uses nearly 100 slides of Hollywood actors from the 1930s to the present. Lim says his use of the slides show Tom not just indulging in escapist fare when he goes to the movies but also "looking for the absent father" every time he gazes at the male icons manufactured by the Hollywood dream factory.

Shadowy figures

Featured players in the English Alternative Theatre production are Amy Devitt (Amanda), Aron Carlson (the younger Tom), John Younger (the older Tom), Jacqueline Grunau (Laura) and Jeremy Auman (Jim, the gentleman caller.)

Carlson, a spring 2002 KU graduate who recently wrapped up a stint as a callous, overbearing army sergeant in "Fatherland," an EAT one-act play written by Adam Merker, says stepping into Tom's shoes was a big leap.

"It's a much different role," he says. "The story that surrounds the character that I play is much greater in this production. The last role was like a snapshot of the character."

But, he adds, "I felt like I had a lot in common with this character, just in terms of the dilemma of whether to stay or leave, trying to grow up and leave the nest but also trying to do the right thing."

Devitt, a KU English professor, says she understands her character's motivations as well.

"She expects a lot of her children and is often disappointed," she says. "Part of the challenge of playing her is that as I get to know her I become sympathetic with her."

Various shadowy figures in the gay bar in Amsterdam will be played by Paul Shoulberg, Mick Circo, Ryan Fleming, Brian Gray, Brenna Daldorph and Karl Ramberg, who also will provide live original music for the production.

Scenic and costume designer is Kaye Miller; lighting designer is Lee Saylor; sound engineer is Matt Gaus; and stage manager is Kirby Fields.

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