When and where does The Glass Menagerie take place? As trivia questions go, that would seem to be an easy one: the squalid, Depression-era St. Louis apartment of Amanda Wingfield and her two grown children, restless aspiring writer Tom and emotionally stunted Laura.
But that’s in fact wrong. It actually takes place inside Tom’s head, as he recalls — perhaps accurately, perhaps not — the evening that forever changed his life and that of his sister and mother.
Tennessee Williams’s semi-autobiographical drama is widely considered one of the greatest American plays and remains one of the most widely produced. (PCPA staged it earlier this year.) But even if you’re familiar with the material, it’s easy to forget the fact that it is — as Tom explicitly states — a “memory play.”
In most stagings, no strong distinction is made between the Tom who interacts with his mother and sister and the Tom who occasionally steps out of the story to comment on the action. In both the past and present, he’s almost always a young man in his twenties. The scenes he is recalling are fresh in his mind, since not that much time has passed.
As is his wont, John Blondell, artistic director of the Lit Moon Theatre Company, is taking a different approach. When he premieres his production of The Glass Menagerie this weekend at Westmont College, Tom will be played by Stan Hoffman — a man in his seventies.
The clear implication is that, this time around, Tom is reaching way back in time, recalling events that happened 40 or 50 years earlier. “For him, memory is a real burden,” Blondell said. “His character has to live with the painful knowledge” of his own destructive behavior, which still haunts him decades later.
As area theater audiences know, Blondell has been taking a fresh approach to familiar material for more than two decades (Lit Moon will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year. While he has staged many classic dramas — he will oversee an ambitious Shakespeare Festival in November, with several companies performing in various Santa Barbara venues — this will be his first time tackling Tennessee Williams.
“For years, I did not like this play at all,” he admitted. “I thought it was dated. Then about two years ago, I taught it in my Greater Literature of the Stage class [at Westmont, where he heads the theater department]. I was struck by how it’s both refined and raw. I immediately said, ‘I need to do this at some point.'”
What did he see in the material that he missed the first time around? “It’s full of both brash American optimism and brash cruelty,” he said. “This is a crueler play than Julius Caesar. Characters engage in complete and utter betrayal.”
His staging will be “very minimal. There’s not a lot of stuff on the stage. The actors are kind of bare and exposed. The characters are all fragile. They’re all breakable.” At least, that’s how Tom sees them. “As a memory play, it’s difficult to tease out what is the reality and what is [emerging from] Tom’s imagination,” Blondell said. “This is from Tom’s perspective. It’s his version of the story. The audience must then decide whether he’s a reliable narrator or not.”
So the focus will shift as the story unfolds, reflecting the way some memories are vivid (if not necessarily accurate) while others are hazy in our minds. Music will be way in the background, barely audible, but adding to the emotional texture. “We are trying to make certain moments explode with a certain vehemence,” Blondell said. “We’re letting the vitriol rip. This material is both refined and raw.”
Not to mention memorable.
The Glass Menagerie plays Friday-Saturday, September 2-3, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, September 4, at 4 p.m. in Porter Theatre at Westmont College (955 La Paz Rd.). For ticket information, call (805) 565-7140 or see litmoontheatre.com.