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Playing Tom in Glass Menagerie

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Maines ‘Menagerie’: Donalevan Maines returns to acting in The Glass Menagerie.
Maines ‘Menagerie’: Donalevan Maines returns to acting in The Glass Menagerie.

Donalevan Maines tells us about his role in ‘The Glass Menagerie.’
by Donalevan Maines

“I have tricks in my pocket—I have things up my sleeve—but I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”

–Tom’s opening lines in The Glass Menagerie

“What took you so long?” my cousin asks. She wants to know why I haven’t acted in fifteen or twenty years. But the question I ask myself is, “Why didn’t I play Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie before now?”

The oversight is due to be corrected in a production June 7–30 at Cast Theatrical Company in my hometown of Rosenberg, thirty miles southwest of Houston. Fittingly, because that’s where my life in the theater began.

I was only ten the first time I saw The Glass Menagerie, but I remember rooting passionately for Tom’s sister, Laura, who was lame, when he brought her home a Gentleman Caller. I rejected their mother Amanda’s refrain that “things have a way of turning out so badly.”

Tom’s monologues on the fire escape of the Wingfields’ ratty apartment in St. Louis frame the story, but the play, to me, was always about the other three characters. Then, earlier this year, I read Gentleman Callers: Tennessee Williams, Homosexuality, and Mid-Twentieth-Century Drama, a book by Michael Paller.

“Tom is gay,” writes Paller.

Aha! Or to quote Tom in the final scene, “I’ll be jiggered! I didn’t know.”

I don’t think other actors have clocked Tom as gay, either. Not William Holden in the 1950 movie, or Hal Holbrook opposite Shirley Booth on CBS Playhouse in 1966. Not Montgomery Clift or Sam Waterston. Well, maybe Montgomery Clift and Sam Waterston. But mostly you hear that Tennessee Williams revealed himself through his female characters, such as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire.

The critic Mark Lilly, for example, saw Laura’s lameness as a metaphor for the playwright’s struggle with his sexual orientation in the 1940s. “It is seen as a disability that actually restricts sexual fulfillment,” wrote Lilly.

Which makes it all the more fulfilling for me to return home to play Tom as a young gay man who would become one of America’s greatest playwrights. Paller is a great help toward my understanding of the role.

To begin with, Paller writes, “Tom is cagey. He is an embodiment of Williams’s intense conflict between the urge to conceal and the concomitant desire to reveal.”

In Scene Three, when Tom and Amanda quarrel after she peers over his shoulder at what he’s writing, Paller suggests, “[H]e may want to keep the work secret because its contents are gay—or just intensely private.”

Tom is also evasive about his nocturnal outings. “I go to the movies,” he says. Paller explains, “Williams knew quite well why so many men went to the movie houses that lined 42nd Street in New York, and in Hollywood.”

The Gentleman Caller, the poet Tom explains, symbolizes “the long-delayed but always expected something that we live for.” Paller writes, “There seems to be a part of Tom that wishes the Gentleman Caller was calling on him.”

I’ve merely scratched the surface of Paller’s theory that Tom is gay and that he flees the Wingfields’ apartment to find himself. Who he finds is the man I get to portray in the final monologue.

By integrating personal material as subtext, Tennessee Williams rendered his emotions all the more powerfully, writes Paller: “When boundaries are established against expression, expression must find another way to break through. Igor Stravinsky had this in mind when he observed, ‘The more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free.’”

It’s been six years since I stepped onstage, and that was to greet the opening night audience at Cast Theatrical Company’s production of Wheels of Justice, which I wrote in Edward Albee’s playwriting class at the University of Houston. Its gala premiere at the Alley Theatre in 1992 raised more than $15,000 to launch the “estate planning for artists with AIDS” project at Texas Accountants and Lawyers for the Arts in Montrose. I got to return the next year to perform dual roles in His Only Forgotten Son, which is a series of monologues structured as a two-act play.

In 1945, The Glass Menagerie became Tennessee Williams’s first hit on Broadway. Later, he won Pulitzer Prizes for both A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Cast Theatrical Company (casttheatrical.com) is located at 1909 Ave. G in Rosenberg amid new restaurants, historic buildings, a railroad museum, a sock-hop soda fountain, and an array of shops with heavenly names. The theater’s usually sold-out performances begin at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with two 2:30 p.m. matinees each run, one on Saturday and one on Sunday. For reservations, which are strongly recommended, call 832/889-3808.

Donalevan Maines also writes about the Tony Awards in this issue of OutSmart.

 

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Don Maines

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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