How Theatre Should Be Remembered

Richard ‘Chomps’ Thompson

Aaron Cammack as Tom, Michelle Chin as Laura, and Lillie Richardson as Amanda photo credit to Tim Fuller.

It is from distant regret that healing becomes an impossibility. Those hazy fragments of time where we confuse ourselves that what we remember is what had always been, and become trapped in its fixation with desperate resolve. This pain from memory and regret is at center stage as we watch a closing chapter to the lives of the Wingfield clan in the Arizona Theatre Company production of The Glass Menagerie

Considered one of his seminal pieces, Tenessee Williams’s Menagerie still resonates today as it did in 1944, presenting bitter traumas and fractured relationships as a sort of ghost story that many people live with. This is a commanding directorial debut for Chanel Bragg, ATC’s Associate Artistic Director, and her skills in drawing out sophisticated and emotional nuance while also bringing new contemporary elements within a classic tale is noteworthy.

Tom Wingfield (played passionately by Aaron Cammack), with the slow molasses-like drawl of bitter contemplation, recounts the final days with the two women he loved most — his sister Laura and his mother Amanda — showing us just how much he didn’t know how to love them. It’s a true and disturbing choreography of flawed remembrance. Like many memories of regret, they are rife with longing and beauty, until they turn cracked, just like they have always been. 

From the outset, the set and light design was crafted to best emphasize this element of flawed narration, pouring a drab and dusted over veneer onto the stage in the form of rustic earthy hues. These lighting moments were interspersed with chromatic urban highlights into a scene of colorful industrial decline. 

Josafath Reynoso, set designer, dotted the stage with antiques and heirlooms that were once vibrant, but now aged and worn away from neglect. Translucent backdrops of steel-girded window panes allowed us to see not only inside the Wingfield home, but outside as well. Space is filled impressively not just horizontally, but vertically as well, utilizing the fire escape that rests just outside as an almost invisible feature of shadow and aluminum until it is ever-present.  

In contrast to how subtle the fire escape is, there stands an opulent, vivacious, whimsically-lit, neon sign of Paradise Hall, glowing from a range of whites and blues to all sorts of rainbow hues therein. When not spotlighting these memorial cues, Marsha Tsmiring, lighting designer, effectively conveyed the ambiance of romanticized memory with a soft and careful hand. Lighting becomes a sunset-like red when characters riff fondly of a past they lovingly remember, as if seeing through rose-colored glasses.

Similarly to the light design, Matthew DeVore, sound designer, fit the world with appropriate period pieces that are both familiar and hard to place, creating an occasionally-distorted comfort. This is made even more poignant by the fiddle which frames up a memory about to be visited and tethered to a deliberate striking luminosity of the Paradise Hall sign.

The use of light, coupled with the music, was a thoughtful mechanism to transition into new scenes, as well as mimicking how one is moved to a memory they cannot escape when a word or song elicits sentimental trauma from parts of the mind typically kept locked. All of these illuminated, emotional constructs foregrounded memory as a theme, allowing for convincing character interpretation. 

This evocative element is embraced at the very opening of the show. The lights don’t dim and the stage is not set. Cammack, in his role of Tom Wingfield, has to do that. And by the time he talks, he is already far off, miles away from those he shows us, even when he is on stage. He walks among his family and peers in the distance, unable to truly connect with those around him. Cammack moves and speaks sharply, demanding sympathy for his turmoil even when his actions are selfish. There are times when he speaks to the audience that his movements match those of whom he speaks, creating an eerie effect of show and tell of his state of mind, and the fragility of his memories, as if he himself is another piece of furniture that breathes in life before dying away from neglect.

In complete contrast is Lillie Richardson, playing Amanda Wingfield with such an overbearingly delightful performance that she steals the stage every time she speaks. Richardson is passionately exuberant, giving Amanda an enraging tenacity to drive any son or daughter into a frenzy. The audience can relate to her with an empathetic humanity into her misguided, yet sincere motives.

Laura, played by Michelle Chin, is performed with a beautifully sad whimsy. With each clubbed step and soft cry, she harnesses a perfect peculiarity that is fragile and longing. Debilitated by lifelong anxiety along with being pitilessly resigned a ‘cripple’, her sweet depth is presented without mockery and is compassionately tragic. 

Jim O’Conner, played by Paul Deo Jr., takes stage with a booming voice and prominent gait that is nothing short of bombast. He is both charming and awkward, astute and clueless. He walks with an eloquence so poised it suffers from stilted upward mobility.  

The entire cast is notable with wonderful deliberateness in each of their performances. If there was a minor critique to be found, it would be that despite the proficient use of accents, they all seemed from different regions of the south, struggling to find uniformity. It was not distracting in the least, and may not even be noticed for the most part.

Beyond the performances themselves is the recognition that some contemporary audiences may find issue with the historical elements of the subject matter itself. This is a story told of 1930s America with concepts much more overt in their social statements of roles and expectations. Yes, the patriarchy is definitely alive and well in this tale. This is a story that defines a woman as only worth the man who will have her. Problematic? Of course. Still relevant in a contemporary audience? Yes. Not because it’s true, but because now it is seen with a modern sense that highlights its absurdity. A point that could be argued is how the importance of the women in this play are truly to be recognized when their importance is defined by the man who is remembering them to begin with. It is a quintessential example of the value structure placed upon women based on the worth in which a man has bestowed upon them, despite it being rooted in virtuism. 

This concept of identity is actually made present for a contemporary audience by Bragg’s leadership. A point that will be noticed immediately is Bragg’s choice of casting, along with Casting Director Victor Vazquez, choosing to cast black performers along with white ones. More to the point, she cast a black actress in a traditionally-white role.

Issues of diversity and inclusion are not a secret anymore, but there is a degree of systemic success imparted by its execution. Despite well-meaning intentions, how race and character are perceived (and in many ways expected) can cause unintentional analysis that takes away from seeing a character for who they are. Even harder, is asking and answering when is race a crucial element of a character? Bragg answers this through her casting in the way diversification should be authentically instituted.

Race in this instance is held perfectly, completely unimportant as it has no bearing on character motivations or desires. Those crucial elements are not affected. They are people; flawed and real, held together by their own convictions, triumphs and desires that remain authentic to their hearts, their pains, and their fears; and they were cast magnificently. While it could be considered a simple statement on inclusivity on the stage, it is more than that. It is an example of the effect in which audience expectations can reach new points of character understanding when seen in a new light. 

This deliberate casting of black actors in non-color roles creates an inverse reflection to Amanda Wingfield’s typical southern debutante in an entirely opposite way that minstrels did to African Americans with their exaggerated caricatures created from blackface. Amanda Wingfield didn’t change, but her humanity was further illuminated through Richardson’s performance. Real humans from conditioned systems that unmade them from an expected – albeit classic – novelty into people again.

Despite being one of Williams’s most notably recognized plays, Bragg breathes new ways to contemplate the family dynamics and histrionics with her directorial decisions, allowing a contemporary perspective to explore the characters and setting of this piece in ways that are resonant in the 21st century.

Even though the era in which the play is set is both racist and sexist, it shouldn’t be confused with whether the play itself is. It is not. It is a play of a memory where a broken American, living across the alleyway from Paradise and who escapes to the movies each night, does so because there is nothing left for them except for realizing they will never fulfill their own potential. This is a play of stories within stories and how we remember them. The story itself is a reminder of our nation’s historical realities, priorities, and measures of achievement and how in many respects, they still hold firm to the contemporary setting of today even when not as overt. The central questions that are asked remain unchanged and timeless: Who will care for us when we can’t care for ourselves? How does one feel guiltless when they leave the ones they care for? When these questions cannot be answered, the ghosts of regret and unfulfillment remain, haunting those afraid to live as they do with the Wingfield family. The tale of those fractured interrelations will never not resonate and the same holds true in this case. It’s the kind of thoughtful theater that sticks in the minds of audiences to which they remember fondly. 
The Glass Menagerie continues its run in Tucson until February 11th and will continue its run in Phoenix until March 5th. Tickets can be purchased at Arizona Theater Company.


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