When “The Glass Menagerie,” a memory play with strong autobiographical elements, premiered in 1944, it brought immediate fame to playwright Tennessee Williams. It remains possibly his most widely produced work, although “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” are also popular.
Talia Silber wasn’t familiar with “A Glass Menagerie,” until The Highwood Theatre cast her in its upcoming production of the play for eighth to 12th graders.
It was casting by invitation – rather than the usual auditions – and Silber, a 10th grader at Albert Einstein, was “thrilled” the theater chose her to be the mother, Amanda Wingfield – one of those roles actresses long to play.
It also brought a new twist to her theater resume.
Up to now she’s mostly done song-and-dance roles, playing Dainty June in “Gypsy” and one of the showgirls in “Cabaret” at Highwood.
“This show is a really exciting opportunity,” Silber said. “I really got to work on my acting skills” – in a role that gives her many more lines than she ever had before.
It also gave her an opportunity to get to know a character who has elicited several responses.
“When I first saw the script, I thought Amanda was the worst,” Silber said. “But as I dove in, I began to love her.”
The Wingfield matriarch is a faded Southern belle, abandoned by her husband and reduced to raising two children alone in dire financial circumstances. Wanting the best for her children – a daughter, Laura, who is both physically and emotionally fragile, and a son, Tom, the family’s sole support and desperate to escape – she can be overbearing.
“But Amanda has a soft and sweet side,” said Silber. “She really cares about the people she loves, but is bad at showing it.”
After a few rehearsals, Silber found herself connecting with the character even more.
Because she didn’t get the “lavish life she expected,” the 10th grader added, “she began to build up walls. She doesn’t know how to be genuine.”
Genuineness factors into the theme of Highwood’s 16th season, which is “Betrayal: The Truth Revealed,” said artistic director Matthew Nicola.
“The Glass Menagerie” opens with the admission by Tom, the narrator and protagonist, that what the audience sees may not be accurate but rather based on his memories.
“This is a play we’ve wanted to do for a long time,” said Nicola. “We also wanted to challenge our talented students.”
The conception of Jade Brooks-Bartlett, Highwood’s production manager who is directing the play, is one she believes will challenge the many people in the audience familiar with “The Glass Menagerie.”
Without making any changes in the text, Brooks-Bartlett added a new character, albeit a silent one, whom Tom tells his life story to and gives Tom’s life an endpoint.”
The director believes the production is “far more grounded in reality than most others,” by using “inventive staging that reminds the audience that the actual story might not be what they’re seeing.
“This gives more relatability to every character,” said Nicola.
A team of fourth through 12th graders from Highwood’s Technical Theatre program created the intimate design.
One of the challenges of portraying the complex Amanda simply aging – not just through a few wrinkles and gray in her hair, cosmetically placed, or a “womanly bun and outfits that are an older woman’s,” Silber said. “The rest is up to me.”
“The fun part is every time Amanda does something that makes everyone else cringe,” she said.
Still, Silber insists, that her character “gets a bad rap from most people. “She’s misunderstood.”
“The Glass Menagerie’ will have a limited engagement at Highwood’s home, 914 Silver Spring Ave., downtown Silver Spring, Friday-Sunday, Sept. 28-30, and Sunday, Oct. 5-7. For more information, call 301-587-0697 or visit the theater’s website at www.thehighwoodtheatre.org.