After watching Bill McCallum’s Tom Wingfield smoke a pack of Chesterfields through the opening monologue of The Glass Menagerie at the Guthrie, I can almost forgive Star Tribune theater critic Rohan Preston for rhetorically asking if this play has any relevance for today’s audience. At least I hope it was rhetorical. Because even as I suppressed giggles watching McCallum blow noxious, yet arty, second-hand rings over what is assuredly the most smoking-intolerant audience in Minneapolis (north of the Children’s Theatre), and even as I sat there inside the big blue Target-sponsored spaceship and rolled my eyes as McCallum set the scene of a domestic economy dissolving amidst “shouting and confusion and labor disturbances,” this was still ol’ Tennessee’s writing being resuscitated. And if any playwright had a grasp on the foolish optimism that’s (still!) at the heart of the American dream, he did.
Maybe Rohan is right, and today’s audience would rather see a reality TV cast heal thyselves than pay attention to these windy, emotionally brittle, psychologically warped, transplanted southerners hailing from a drama written in the forties. But this play is about misguided self-confidence, and the weekend that I saw it, I had just read two intriguing essays on optimism in The New York Times and Foreign Policy magazine. Delusional optimism, you see, is running up an unmakeupable trade deficit with China, embroiling us in an unaccomplishable mission in Iraq, and about to hand an altogether winnable election to Rudy Giuliani in 2008.
So yes, to answer your question, Rohan: Tennessee Williams is still relevant. (P.S.: Shakespeare isn’t played out yet, either.) Tennessee’s still relevant because misguided optimism is at the core of Williams’s mostly-autobiographical play. And while this production of The Glass Menagerie will likely be remembered by the root-root-root-for-the-home-team crowd because Guthrie vet Harriet Harris as Amanda Wingfield seriously out-divas Queer as Folk‘s Randy Harrison as Tom Wingfield, any production of this play, from high school on down, turns on the gee-whiz self-help B.S. of The Gentleman Caller in the last act. And, of course, this show is beyond anything our local prep ensembles can muster. When Jonas Goslow’s boyish, arrogant Jim O’Connor unwittingly corners lame, shy Laura Wingfield (played with just the right amount of Precious Moments–collector dowdiness by Tracey Maloney), Tennessee demonstrates the brutal collateral damage that that American brand of casually clueless optimism can have on the less sure, more fragile citizens among us.