Southern belle blues

A great performance of iconic Tennessee Williams character

Two generations of Wingfield women: (from left) Laura (Alexandra Hilsee) and Amanda (Joyce Henderson).

Two generations of Wingfield women: (from left) Laura (Alexandra Hilsee) and Amanda (Joyce Henderson).

Photo by Joe Hilsee

The Glass Menagerie shows Thursday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m., through Feb. 27.
Tickets: $15
Blue Room Theatre
139 W. First St.

A common feature of most of Tennessee Williams’ greatest plays is his sympathetic portrayal of Southern women who suffer the indignities heaped on them by Southern men. Think of Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, among others.

The first of these astonishing—and slightly unhinged—characters to appear in Williams’ work is Amanda Wingfield, the central character in The Glass Menagerie, the breakout autobiographical 1944 play that almost overnight made him famous.

The current staging at the Blue Room Theatre features veteran local actress and drama teacher Joyce Henderson as Amanda, and it’s as if the role was written for her. She gives a masterful performance, one that captures the totality of Amanda, physically and emotionally. Watch, for just one example, how she uses her hands to flesh out her character by drawing pictures in the air.

The play, which is set in St. Louis in 1937, is familiar to most theater lovers. Sixteen years ago, Amanda’s husband, who worked for the phone company, “fell in love with long distance,” as Amanda puts it, and walked out on his family, leaving Amanda to care for her daughter Laura (Alexandra Hilsee) and son Tom (Evan Allen) under straitened financial circumstances.

It’s a major comedown for Amanda, who as a young woman in Mississippi was a Southern belle popular at cotillions and pursued by the wealthy sons of planters, her many “gentleman callers,” or so she says. Her great mistake, she insists, was marrying the charming alcoholic whose picture still hangs prominently in her living room.

Laura walks with a limp—perhaps from a bout of polio—and is pathologically shy. Amanda worries that she will end up alone and pushes her to socialize in order to meet potential husbands, but Laura prefers to stay home and care for her collection of tiny glass animals.

Tom, who wants to be a poet, works at a shoe warehouse and leads a secret life at night. He says he’s going to the movies, but Amanda believes he’s hitting the bars. Amanda insistently pressures him to be more ambitious, leading to vitriolic shouting matches between them.

Tom is also the narrator of the play, and from the beginning he warns us that it’s a “memory play” and may not be exactly true.

The plot comes to a head when Tom, at his mother’s insistence, invites a co-worker, Jim O’Connor (Jeremy Votava), home for dinner and to meet Laura—to become her “gentleman caller.” But Laura recoils when she learns that he’s her former high school crush-from-a-distance and, later, that he’s engaged to be married.

Amanda Detmer directed this production, eliciting excellent performances from all of her actors, not just Henderson. One can quibble about details—Hilsee is too young for her role, and Allen sometimes rushes his lines—but overall it’s a superb production featuring four talented players. In addition, set, lighting and costume design (Amber Miller, Monica Bowker and Sandra Barton, respectively) make good use of the Blue Room’s intimate space. Highly recommended.