Tennessee Williams’s memory play, The Glass Menagerie, focuses solely on the insular world of the Wingfield family. The Wingfield apartment is a confining space in both structure and feeling, and is filled with unrealized hopes and dreams. The portrait of their absentee father hangs on the wall, reminding them daily of their insignificance to the man they needed most. As the family languishes and struggles in misery, few from the outside world influence them, except for the much-anticipated gentleman caller, Jim O’Connor.
Character Profiles: Seen On Stage
Tom Wingfield: Tom is the younger of the two Wingfield siblings, but he is the primary breadwinner of the family. With his father absent, the family relies on Tom’s earnings from the factory where he works. Tom, though, is a poet, and dreams of running away to a life filled with adventure. Tom speaks both directly to the audience and to the other characters within his scenes. He is often seen as a stand-in for Tennessee Williams himself: Tennessee’s given name was Thomas; like Tom, he spent part of his youth in St. Louis with an unstable mother and sister. Also like Tom, Tennessee’s father was frequently absent.
Amanda Wingfield: Amanda is the matriarch of the family and claims to have her adult children’s best interests at heart. She is unable to see them for who they really are, though, and addresses them with nagging and criticism. A former debutante in the high social circles of the South, Amanda frequently reminds Tom and Laura of how beautiful and popular she once was. Her stories always end in regret, as the portrait of her absent husband hangs over their living room and their lives, reminding all of them of her fallen station in life. Amanda is not a quitter, though, and when she decides she wants something, she takes action.
Laura Wingfield: Tom’s older sister by two years, Laura has become a recluse. Hindered by the disability in her leg, and the insecurities it has brought her, Laura is anxious in the modern world. She simultaneously fears her mother’s disappointment and perpetuates that disappointment by being unable to move forward in life. She finds solace and refuge in her glass animals and in old records she plays over and over. The records drown out the sounds of her family fighting and of young people celebrating in the dance halls below their apartment.
Jim O’Connor: Tom’s friend from the factory, Jim unknowingly becomes Laura’s first gentleman caller when he accepts an invitation to dinner at Tom’s home. Jim was a high school superstar, excelling in everything he tried. He was also the apple of Laura’s eye, though their contact was limited. After high school, he found his star diminished in his job at the factory, and so has enrolled in night classes to better himself. He is a can-do kind of guy, and his positivity is a contrast to the spirit of the Wingfield home.
Character Profiles: Unseen Player
Mr. Wingfield: A portrait of this man—Amanda’s husband and the father of Tom and Laura—hangs on the wall in the living room, a constant reminder of the life they never had. The portrait as we see it is of a young man in a First World War cap. Perhaps he abandoned his family because of the often not-discussed trauma men felt after serving in the war. We do not know for certain why he left, but as Tom explains, “He was a telephone man who gave up his job with the telephone company and skipped the light fantastic out of town.” Amanda recalls how charming he was when he courted her, but always grows wistful for the more noble gentleman callers she turned down to marry him. He looms large over their lives, an image of regret and anger and also longing for the life they might have had if he had stayed with them.
Here are Mr. Wingfield’s last words to the family:
You can see these characters on stage at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., from January 22 to February 21, 2016. Learn more about the show online here, or watch a video interview with the production’s director Mark Ramont.
Jennie Berman Eng is the Lead Teaching Artist in the Ford’s Theatre Society Education Department.