Disability, Expectations, and Disruption in The Glass Menagerie

by Melissa Hillman

Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie is a “memory play,” narrated through the main character’s memories of his mother, Amanda, and disabled sister, Laura. Tom, the main character, is the filter through which we see Laura and her disability. This filter becomes critically important when thinking about how disability is portrayed on our stages. When staging a woman’s disability as seen through the eyes of an able-bodied man, the issues that arise mirror the issues of living with a disability in the “real world.” Those of us who live with disabilities spend a great deal of time managing the emotions other people have about our disabilities, disrupting the narratives they create about us, and struggling to be seen as our own, individual selves with complex intersectional identities. Women know how much of our lives are spent managing emotions and opinions about us as women—about our bodies, our families, and our choices. It’s no surprise that one of the most famous disabled female characters in western dramaturgy is only seen as the memory of an able-bodied man.

So when we stage Laura Wingfield, approaching the character as an opportunity for disabled representation through the framework of the memory of an able-bodied man is a challenge. The casting of disabled actor Madison Ferris as Laura in the recent Broadway revival generated many deeply emotional responses from both reviewers and audiences. There were claims that casting Ferris—the presence of Ferris’ disabled body onstage, along with the wheelchair she uses—was exploitative.

That casting was thrilling to me, personally, in part just because there are so few representations of disabled people on our stages, and so many able-bodied actors portraying us, often badly. (How hard is it to learn to use a cane properly? Evidently very hard.) In part, however, it was thrilling because the very phenomenological fact of Ferris’ disabled body onstage disrupts the play’s attempt to contain Laura as a memory and assign to her all the symbolic meaning the play wishes her to carry. One of the main complaints about Ferris’ performance was that she was too bold, too assertive. She lacked the shy, retiring wallflower quality that is too often ascribed as the proper behavior for “improper” bodies. If you must inflict yourselves on us, at least do it quietly. Be as slight—or as invisible—as possible. Ferris’ rejection of that, and director Sam Gold’s staging of her that highlights the difference her body exhibits as it moves through space, was uniquely troubling to people who were made uncomfortable by the reality of the disabled body they had expected to be neatly contained as a memory—an echo of a disability, primly played by an able-bodied actress whispering demurely while walking with a slight, but pretty, limp.

This discomfort was what led people to call it “exploitative,” an absurd claim that’s steeped in ableism. To call a disabled female body onstage “exploitative” is to assert that the public display of our bodies markedly differs from the public display of the bodies of able-bodied female actors. We fill our stages with thin, white, young, able-bodied women and measure all female bodies with their distance from that “norm.” We accept unquestioningly that thin, white, able-bodied women are naturally meant to be displayed, and every female body that varies from that too distinctly should be hidden from view. To label the display of a disabled female body “exploitative” is to say that our bodies are so far from the “norm” that they’re naturally meant to be private, hidden from view, and that any display of them is improper. “Exploitative” implies that just allowing ourselves to be seen is, in some way, a crime. This is, in a word, balderdash.

Lisa Portes’ tight, muscular staging of Glass Menagerie at Cal Shakes creates yet another layer of disruption of this “norm” by using all actors of color. The actor playing Laura (Phoebe Fico) is a young woman of color with a visible mobility disability. The physical presence of the actor’s disabled body onstage as Laura disrupts the other characters’ strenuous and relentless efforts to create a “Laura” that is acceptable, both to themselves and to others, paralleling our culture’s relentless efforts to contain and define women, people with disabilities, and people of color.

Portes’ staging goes right for the jugular in attacking this. Amanda, Laura’s mother, persistently seeks to define Laura, controlling the language people—even Laura—use to define her and steadfastly ignoring anything Laura wants or says. Portes throws the focus on Laura in these moments and highlights Amanda’s inability to truly see her daughter. Fico’s Laura walks with crutches because Fico walks with crutches, yet Amanda insists Laura’s disability is “barely noticeable.” Part of the oppression of people with disabilities by the able-bodied majority is that the way we walk, move, talk, and occur in space are assigned value by the able-bodied based on our difference from the able-bodied “norm.” “It’s barely noticeable” is not a compliment. We know disability is an indelible part of our humanity, and assuring us that you don’t see it, think about it, or even notice it is only assuring us that you are studiously ignoring a major aspect of our humanity. It’s reminiscent of telling a Black person “I don’t see you as Black.” It means “I don’t see you at all; I see a fictional version of you.” In scenes with Amanda, Laura wavers between trying to get Amanda to see her (insisting she can clear the table, describing the pleasure she gets from her walks), managing Amanda’s emotions about her, and hiding. Portes’ staging never allows the audience to forget about the real Laura even as Amanda creates a fictional Laura she finds more comfortable.

But the most powerful staging of the play centers around Laura and Tom.

Glass Menagerie is not just a memory play; it’s an act of exorcism. Tom has done something inexcusable and is attempting to rid himself of the guilt by retelling this story of his past to the audience. He’s an unreliable narrator, but not in the way you would expect. He’s fully aware of the selfishness and inexcusability of his acts, and doesn’t shrink from portraying that. But where he’s the most unreliable is in his implications that any disaster that might have befallen his sister after his departure from the family was her own fault. Nowhere is this more pointed than in the scene between Laura and Jim, the “Gentleman Caller.”

The entire play is Tom’s memory, but Tom had no way of knowing what went on between Laura and Jim while he was in the next room. That scene is a fiction Tom creates with a fantasy Laura for the audience to consume. All she needs is confidence! Throw down your crutches and dance, and all will be well! This is the heart of Tom’s exorcism ritual. “Please believe this scene, audience, so I can be absolved of my guilt. Please believe that whatever might have happened to Laura was her own fault—her own choice.” He has created a Laura that absolves him of his guilt. Creating a fictional Laura as a scapegoat for his own cruel treatment of his family echoes our culture’s relentless scapegoating of the oppressed for their own oppression. Absolving Tom would simultaneously absolve the audience of any guilt they may be feeling about the way women, people with disabilities, and, in this production, people of color are treated in our culture. Portes’ final moment demolishes the possibility of absolution. She puts all the power in Laura’s hands and allows her to deny absolution to him and to us. It’s a powerful ending. I won’t reveal what happens, but watch for it. It’s small and quiet and immensely powerful.

If we have any hope of disrupting the multiple levels of containment of the disabled body in The Glass Menagerie, it can only be through staging the work with a disabled actor. The only possible way of creating space for disabled people, for holding even the smallest space for our voices, experiences, and lives, is to disrupt Tom’s memory with the phenomenological fact of a visibly disabled body on stage and allow the play to cohere around that body, allowing the play to cohere (in part) around the ways in which able-bodied people attempt to manage their experiences of people with disabilities and, in so doing, often marginalize and silence us, replacing our real bodies and voices with narratives of their own creation. Using a disabled actor as Laura then becomes a revolutionary act that begins the process of disrupting centuries of false, “acceptable” depictions of disabled bodies constructed in place of the real disabled bodies that were silenced and hidden.

Disability is a complex issue. There are numerous types of disability, and actors with disabilities are not, of course, interchangeable. Many types of disability are invisible, and that becomes a serious consideration when working in a primarily visual art form. Yet just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s impossible or not worth considering. We are at the very beginning of considering these issues, and the way forward must be creating space for disabled bodies and voices, both on the stage and in gatekeeping positions. We’re opening a new door in this industry and just beginning the process of imagining what’s possible.

Melissa Hillman is the Artistic Director of Impact Theatre in Berkeley. She holds a PhD in Dramatic Art from UC Berkeley and has taught at Cal, the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre and Maybeck High School. She has written for Huffington Post, Theatre Bay Area Magazine, Southern Theatre Magazine, Quartz, and many others, but most often writes for her own blog, Bitter Gertrude, found at bittergertrude.com

Click here to get tickets for The Glass Menagerie, playing through July 30.


Ask Philippa: The Glass Menagerie

“I wasn’t prepared for what the future brought me,” says Tennesee Williams’ Amanda Wingfield. Looking back to genteel Southern roots that haven’t yielded the kind of life she imagined for herself, Amanda tries to shape success for her children, Tom and Laura. Amanda’s indomitable spirit and childlike optimism refuse to be quashed by experience, and her sassy humor peeps through the most dire situation to give us one of the most famous voices of 20th century American Theater. Looking back on his experience to bring forth the story of Amanda, her two children, and her absent husband, Tom unfolds, in The Glass Menagerie, the coming-of-age story of playwright Tennessee Williams. The Glass Menagerie is a “memory play” for Tom, and it is a “memory play” for Williams, who, Gore Vidal has suggested, “could not possess his own life until he had written about it.”

Dr. Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater, is also a professor and author. Her 2010 book, The King and I, a meditation on Australian culture through the lens of King Lear, garnered international praise in its very personal examination of themes of abandonment, loss, and humor).

You can email Philippa at pkelly@calshakes.org, or post below to ask her a question.

The Glass Menagerie begins performances July 5 and continues through July 30. Click here to learn more and buy tickets!


Lisa Portes on displacement, belonging, and the American Dream

Acclaimed Chicago director Lisa Portes visited Cal Shakes this spring for auditions and meetings in anticipation for her upcoming production of The Glass Menagerie. She sat down with Alicia Coombes, Publications Manager, to discuss her preliminary ideas and thoughts—what follows is edited and condensed for clarity.

Alicia Coombes: Why The Glass Menagerie, right now? What make this particular production special?

Lisa Portes: When Eric asked me about it sometime last summer, I was very excited about it. I’ve always loved Williams, and what I love particularly about this play is that it’s about a group of people who are displaced in their time and in their place.

In terms of [the matriarch] Amanda, she came from an elite family in the south, ran off with the wrong guy, and now finds herself a single mother in St. Louis in the middle of the Depression. Laura has a disability, Tom is gay, and there’s no place for any of them in the world that they live in. Yet they’re all dreamers. Amanda’s dreaming of past glory, Laura miniaturizes herself into a world where a unicorn lives with horses and “they all get along perfectly, Tom is dreaming of a world where he can be who he is—actually all of them are dreaming of a world in which they can be who they are, but who they are doesn’t fit the American Dream.

So I was interested in that idea, and then the election happened, and then I became even more interested in the idea of people who are displaced against an American Landscape. In this production, Amanda is played by an African-American woman. The story that we’re working on is that the kids’ father was Mexican (in the play he runs off to Mexico), and so we’re pushing what Williams was already doing by exploring who is displaced in this landscape right now, in a very real way. What I love about doing it here is that we are literally doing it against an American landscape: it’s outside, up against the California hills, which I love.

In terms of telling the story, [I’m interested in] who has access, who belongs, who is trying to find their way in a world that is often hostile to who they actually are. All of the characters are dreaming of a world in which they can be their authentic selves. I already felt that way, and after the election it only became more pressing, especially with the rhetoric that was coming out of the campaign.

AC: Regarding your casting choices: is this something you’ve wanted to explore in The Glass Menagerie in particular?

LP: All of my work puts women or people of color or women of color at the center—it’s just part of my personal mission as a Latina director, moving stories of women and people of color to the center. So when I started thinking of The Glass Menagerie, I began to imagine who Amanda might be. The tradition of African-American debutantes dates back to the turn of the last century, early 1900’s. So I began to think, she could exist: Amanda as an African-American woman could exist, and that she ran off with the wrong guy (and that he left her) puts her under even greater pressure to try to set things right. I became interested in that story; I became interested in her husband being Mexican (because as described he leaves them all and runs off to Mexico). The idea of that coupling, and the children that came out of that relationship, became very interesting to me.

AC: Dramaturgically, because you can’t change any of Williams’ words, are you running into anything that’s problematic, that you and the actors will need to solve in the rehearsal room, with regard to the text?

LP: Amanda as an African-American woman is tricky perhaps for some. On the one hand, folks might think there couldn’t possibly be a black former debutante in the U.S. in the 1930s.

But the thing is she could and did exist. Our cultural brainpan mistakenly associates color with class, and assumes that color always [signifies] working class, poor, impoverished. Elite African-American culture has existed primarily invisibly since the late 1800s. One of the first black millionaires was actually a woman, Madame C. J. Walker! It’s important to know that, yes, an African-American Amanda Wingfield who came from an elite upper-class community in the South in 1910’s is absolutely viable.

On the other, Amanda says some racially problematic things in the text and they are indeed problematic. Every elite class has its appropriate and inappropriate ways of thinking of the folks that enjoy less privilege. There is colorism in the world of this Amanda Wingfield. What we do know is elitism in any culture comes at a cost, and she’s not above it. I don’t want Amanda’s problematic elitism to be the obstacle for ever casting a brilliant black actress as Amanda.

Another question I’m exploring in this production is: how do we reimagine who Americans are when we think of The Glass Menagerie? How do we reimagine the classic American landscape? How do we re-envision who is at the center of our classical canon in this country? That’s exciting to me in thinking of who Amanda could be, and who her kids could be, and who the Gentleman Caller could be.

AC: How do you see this play engaging with the idea of “The American Dream”?

LP: There have always been marginalized people in this country. The relationship to the American Dream is tenuous. Things have been shifting toward greater inclusivity and an awareness of equity and inclusivity, certainly in the American theater. I thought as a nation we were all moving towards greater equity, inclusion, and access to everything the American Dream has to offer. I mean, it hasn’t been perfect, God knows; when I was imagining this play, Obama was still our president and we were still deporting people, there was still racism, the Black Lives Matter movement began under his presidency. BUT then came this wave of campaign rhetoric, which deliberately targeted, othered and threatened very specific groups of people . And immediately post-election, we really began to see who got a seat at the table. Literally, who’s in the Cabinet? Well, the false sense of safety about an inclusive future certainly shattered.

So when it becomes as profoundly and visually apparent that certain people get access and certain people don’t, despite the fact that we’re all Americans. When you see folks now literally in fear for their lives and their livelihoods and their children—well many folks’ connection to the great American Dream is quite fragile. That to me is the center of the fragility in this play.

AC: Amanda started with way more choices than she ended up with.

LP: Yeah, as an African-American woman, her class buffered her, but since she no longer has class in this play, she no longer has access to those resources. Her access to the American Dream as a single black mother in the 1930s in the north, Laura’s access as a young disabled woman of color, Tom’s as a gay man of color—they’re all compromised. Jim, an able-bodied, straight man of color in this production, has found a way in, actually. He has a kind of optimism, but he also understands what it means to be othered. He’s not just a dorky guy going “all you gotta do is believe,” in this production he speaks to Laura from a place of connection.

AC: How are you addressing The Glass Menagerie as a “memory play”?

LP: I think when we think of Tennessee Williams we have this cultural archetype of gauziness, and sentimentality—and Tennessee Williams says himself, through Tom, that it’s a sentimental play. But I’m keyed more into the idea of memory. For myself and the designers: when you think about how you remember, you don’t remember “gauzily.” If you think about how you remember, you remember this detail on a blurry landscape, but this detail is very distinct.

So two things have affected the design: the idea of displacement, and the idea of memory as a memory-scape on which certain objects—pieces of clothing, people—appear. So you’ll see in the design that it’s quite an abstracted space like the plane of memory. It starts blank, and is formed as Tom begins to form his memory and as Amanda begins to try to shape the world around her. The actors are pulling pieces onto the set, so by the end you get a sense of most of the pieces, but they’re the pieces as Tom remembers them. The clothing they wear is not realistic with costume changes: he remembers this sweater that his mom used to wear, or that hat. We’re really using that idea of memory, instead of gauzy memories. It’s not like Salvador Dali, because that’s surreal, but think of that landscape, and objects on that landscape.

And then displacement: everything moves, all the pieces move, there is no resting place for anything, the father’s portrait isn’t hung on the wall, it kind of is picked up by Tom and then is set against a wall, so nobody has a place, everything can easily come out from under them.

What Annie’s come up with is a quite surprising [scenic] design in that it’s just not what you expect when you think of Williams. There’s nothing on the stage when you come in. You see pieces on either side, and then those pieces as they come to life in Tom’s memory, coming into the playing space.

Also, I wanted to highlight the hills behind the playing space, so we didn’t want to create a wall. I do believe that Tom shares the same space with the audience. He’s not in another space when he’s talking to us.

AC: Thanks so much for talking with me about The Glass Menagerie! I’m looking forward to seeing it as it develops. Any last thoughts for us?

LP: It’s a real science project, as I keep referring to it. Both in terms of the casting process and the design for this play plus performing outside! How do you do a four-character play on a big huge outdoor stage!? There have been a number of really fascinating challenges to try to create this Glass Menagerie— and I’m really excited to see how it all turns out! I have a series of hypotheses that we’re testing, and we’ll see, but I’m very thrilled about it. If it comes together like I think it will it’ll be a really fascinating production.


Stay tuned for further details about casting and creative team for this production. The Glass Menagerie plays from July 5-30. Tickets available here

Lisa Portes is a Chicago-based director. She is a co-founder of the Latinx Theatre Commons and serves on the board of Theatre Communications Group.  Portes heads the MFA directing program at The Theatre School at DePaul University.