At Anthony Bean Community Theater, a rehearsal of The Glass Menagerie starts with the second act. Gwendolyne Foxworth plays Amanda Wingfield and Coti Gayles plays her daughter Laura, who's shy and slightly physically handicapped with a minor limp. Amanda is eagerly awaiting the arrival of Jim, whom she hopes will be attracted to Laura.
Laura is nervous but Amanda is unyielding. She insists on stuffing her daughter's bra as she coaches her on how to behave.
"You make it sound like we're setting a trap," Laura says.
"We are," Amanda responds cheerfully. "We are. All pretty girls are traps."
Amanda quickly, and not for the first time, reminds her daughter that she was once a cotillion queen. She won the cake walk twice, she adds.
The overbearing mother is a very accessible character, Foxworth says.
"When I think of Amanda, I think of people in my family," Foxworth says. "Are you aware that you're reliving the past, and that you're trying to do things differently when you're chastising your children?"
The Glass Menagerie was Tennessee Williams' first major successful play. It's a memory play told through the eyes of an older Tom Wingfield, who recalls the events when he brought a co-worker, Jim, to dinner to meet his mother, Amanda, and sister. Jim is taking public speaking classes in order to be more successful in his career and life. But he, Tom and Amanda all imagine greater things for themselves. Amanda's husband left the family long before, and she's struggled to provide for them. She also can't stop herself from foisting her own memories and dreams onto the vulnerable Laura.
Elements of the play reflect Williams' biography. His mother harbored some of Amanda's social background and aspirations, his sister had mental disabilities and Tom is a frustrated, aspiring writer.
This production features an all African-American cast, and the setting has been changed from St. Louis to New Orleans. It's also been moved up to the 1950s instead of the '30s, so Laura plays with a phonograph instead of a Victrola and the music is appropriate for the times. The text has been tweaked in a few places, such as Jim's alarm when he reads the headline that Jackie Robinson might be retiring from professional baseball.
"We changed 'mother' to 'momma,'" Foxworth says with a smile. "We don't say 'mother' very much, except once where Tom is angry."
Foxworth has been a very familiar face at the Bean theater. It has produced the entire 10-play, decade-by-decade cycle of August Wilson's plays about African-American life in the 20th century, and she appeared in seven of them. She also once played Stella in a Dashiki Project Theater production of A Streetcar Named Desire, and she appeared as Strega, an Italian term for an old woman viewed as a witch, in The Rose Tattoo. Anthony Bean recruited Foxworth to take on the rich and demanding role of Amanda.
"He called me and asked me if I was going to be in Shakespeare or this," Foxworth says. She's worked with Bean since she first took an acting class with him 30 years ago.
Though Bean often directs or appears in productions, he's minimally involved with this play. He has been working on the theater's next show, the musical version of The Color Purple, which opens May 22. It involves a cast of more than 30 and is currently in rehearsal.
Janet Spencer is directing The Glass Menagerie. She and husband Lyn Caliva are in town to do the show. He's handling lighting and technical work for the production, which he directed for the theater during its first 10 years, before the couple moved to Bastrop, Texas.
Spencer was the program coordinator at Tulane University's Department of Theater and Dance from 2001 to 2006, and she directed The Member of the Wedding, featuring an interracial cast, at the Bean theater in 2009. She was in town last year during Bean's production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, when she and Bean started talking about doing The Glass Menagerie.
Spencer thought the changes in the era and the casting would work well.
"Tennessee himself said you can produce this play 'with unusual freedom of convention,'" she says.
Because it's a memory play, she's using a minimal set, with just the furniture necessary for the action and Laura's glass figures.
"These are Tom's memories," she says. "It's episodic."
But she has cast both a younger Tom who interacts with the family and an older Tom, who serves as narrator on the Wingfield apartment's fire escape.
The older Tom (Albert Aubrey) highlights the difficulties he remembers from his mother's insistence and sister's detachment.
"It's about families," Spencer says. "Every time I see the final scene I tear up."