When “The Glass Menagerie” opens Thursday at the Maryland Ensemble Theatre, actress Vanessa Strickland will reprise a role she starred in nearly 10 years ago.
“I was very interested (in auditioning), but honestly (I had) trepidations because I had done it before,” Strickland said. “I was a little hesitant that I was going to recycle an old performance.”
Strickland played the role of Laura, the painfully shy and physically handicapped sister to Tom (Matt Lee), the play's narrator, in a high school production, and won the role again this year at MET.
But Strickland said her fears about playing Laura for a second time were quickly diminished once she started the rehearsal process; something she attributes in part to her age and experience.
“A lot of it is ... as an actor, you can draw a lot ... from yourself,” Strickland said. “I'm almost 30 now, and back then I was 17. ... I'm thinking back to how I reacted to things as a younger person. ... I can't look back and see the same Laura I played in high school.”
But Strickland said it also was her fellow ensemble members who helped her to rediscover the role with a fresh perspective. In fact, all of “The Glass Menagerie” cast members, along with the show's director, credit their connections with one another with allowing them to master a play that's all about human relationships.
“The Glass Menagerie” is a four-character memory play written by Tennessee Williams and originally on Broadway in 1945. The story is told from Tom's perspective and is his recollection of his mother Amanda (Julie Herber) and his sister Laura. Many believe “The Glass Menagerie” to be an autobiographical play about Williams' life.
“Clearly there are significant events that happen to Tom in his past that have stayed with him and, he says, have pursued him,” said director Peter Wray. “The play is his attempt to reconcile the significant family events of his past and what caused him to flee them.”
After Tom's father leaves the family, the young man is burdened with the responsibility of caring for his meddling mother and his reclusive sister.
“(Tom) is very devoted to his family, but at the same time, he feels trapped,” Lee said. “Their father has left them, and (Tom) has sort of taken on the responsibility of a father figure (and) put his dreams and aspirations on hold.”
Lee is 22, the same age as the character he portrays. The young actor said he can relate to Tom's struggle.
“There's a lot I can identify with ...” Lee said. “I aspire to write but often feel trapped by working or stuck in the 9-to-5 world.”
While finding common ground with his character came easily to Lee, wrapping his brain around a Tennessee Williams play was another story.
“For me, doing something that's more realistic is much more of a challenge,” Lee said. “(With fantasy) you have much more room to play around and kind of be crazier which for me is actually easier ... It's being so simplistic that makes it hard.”
“This play is very microcosmic,” added Strickland. “It has to do with one family. It never changes location.”
In order to help his actors overcome the show's simplicity, Wray said he had the cast focus on the relationships between the members of the family.
“We really focused on trying to understand what's going on within the family ...” Wray said. “That's what we have focused on with the actors: the fragility of the relationships.”
Wray, who is also an associate professor of theater at Towson University, said his approach has been successful because of the bond that already exists among ensemble members.
“The ensemble knows each other really well and have developed a terrific shorthand,” Wray said. “They already come to the show with a sense of chemistry. This connection works really well, so let's plug that into the characters.”
“It brings out the richness of life in a way you don't often get,” added Joe Jalette who plays a gentleman caller and was a student of Wray's at Towson.
“It's this magical thing that's unfolding in ways I don't think we expected it to,” said Jalette.