He went to work for the phone company and fell in love with long distance. With that line, we are introduced to Amanda Wingfield, the pivotal character of the unhinged mother in Tennessee Williams' classic, The Glass Menagerie. This line is repeated several times throughout the play, and it is used to describe the father, long gone physically from the family but still very present in the family dynamic.
I sought out Reno Little Theater's recent production to see how a lifetime of working with dysfunctional families might impact my impressions of a play I hadn't seen since I was a teenager. I had forgotten the play is told from the perspective of son Tom's memory. This led me to consider overall how memory is such an important part of life's Second Act, and how it influences our perspectives, our interests and our relationships.
We are very dependent on memory at this stage of life. Our memory validates our life choices, surprises us occasionally and can trick us into reshaping life events to suit our purposes. In fact, we live in fear of a failing memory and how it might debilitate us as we age.
My brother is two years older than I am and I sometimes wonder if he and I grew up in the same household. On the occasions we reminisce about our childhood, his memories and mine tend to be very different. We may agree on some fundamentals, but his life perspective and mine growing up were obviously dissimilar. This reality reinforces there is no correct memory, but rather those which are unique to each of us.
Those familiar with 'The Glass Menagerie' remember the character, Laura, Tom's delicate sister. Laura is described as 'shy' and has a slight disability. Her nickname in high school was 'Blue Roses' because she had a bout of pleurosis (pleurisy). She has no friends and no interests other than her collection of miniature glass animals on which to focus her attention.
The mother's obsessive concern for her daughter puts pressure on Tom to bring home a gentlemen caller for Laura. Tom does so, with disastrous consequences. It is this incessant harping by his mother that eventually drives Tom away from home to join the merchant marines yet he cannot shake his guilt over leaving Laura. Laura is Tom's conscience. Even though he has deserted his family, he cannot forget his delicate sister. In the soliloquy at the conclusion of the play, he rhetorically begs Laura to 'please blow out your candle'.
And then there is Amanda, the mother. Amanda is a former Southern debutante who is disappointed that life hasn't turned out the way she had hoped. She married a charming southern man who deserts her and their two children. She spends her energy jabbing her children with the failings of their absent father particularly reinforcing Tom's own imperfections because he is 'just like him.'
I sought out a 1973 production of The Glass Menagerie on YouTube featuring Kathrine Hepburn as Amanda and Sam Waterston as Tom. You can watch a clip here. These extraordinary stage actors make the characters believable laying the foundation for Tom's inevitable life choice to desert his mother and sister. Tom had to leave to survive; but by doing so, the light of his sister's candle flame stayed with him forever.
So there you have it -- an unfulfilled mother; a son striving for independence and individuation; a delicate sister who goes within herself to survive. You may know people or families just like them. Like many people, Tom followed his life path but paid a heavy price by carrying nagging regrets he cannot shake.
An important benefit to life's Second Act is the opportunity to reconcile all of life's fragmented pieces including the regrets. Maximizing this time of life to find peace with elements which may still trouble us is a tremendous benefit of longevity.