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.