Fresh from her role as opera diva Maria Callas in Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of Master Class, Milwaukee actor and playwright Angela Iannone is ready to try something different. And nothing could be more different than the role of Amanda Wingfield, the abandoned wife and faded Southern belle of The Glass Menagerie.
In Tandem Theater opens its production of the Tennessee Williams classic, starring Iannone, on Sept. 25.
Although it’s not her first experience with Williams — Iannone has played Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire and Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — Iannone says Amanda presents an entirely different set of challenges. And she’s looking forward to them.
I spoke with her about those challenges.
How is this role different from Williams’ other faded Southern belles? Williams’ plays are, to my mind, American plays of manners. His women seem to come from a place of social structure — civility, appearances, good graces and expectations of gentle treatment from the world — and they are continually disappointed. Williams’ women run into trouble when they are asked to speak the truth, and truth for Williams is the thing that breaks the world.
The Glass Menagerie is different from other Williams plays because it is a memory play. The audience sees Amanda through her son Tom’s eyes and hears her voice as it is remembered by Tom.
As such, there can be no resolution for the characters. Amanda doesn’t get to “finish” like Williams’ other characters. Her resolution, if there is one, is not one that Tom saw because he left. This is a far more delicate play in walking the line between “now” and “then” than most audiences realize.
This was Williams’ earliest play, the one that launched his career when it was first performed in 1944. It is also said to be his most autobiographical work. Williams has said that Amanda, and Blanche DuBois, too, are more autobiographical than factual. It is popular and current to say he based those women on his own mother, and perhaps some of that is true. But as a playwright myself, I can say that all of my characters speak with my voice, just different facets of it.
I believe the same thing is true of Amanda. She’s one facet of Williams’ own voice. She is, however, also an invention: a fantastic creature he created for his own dramatic purposes.
Some scholars have said that the role of Amanda Wingfield is one of the greatest female roles in American theater. Do you agree? Interesting question. Tennessee Williams is one of our great American playwrights, and Amanda has certainly been a great character for many of our great American actresses, but I don’t know that I personally would put her in the pantheon of great American roles for women. I don’t want that to sound dismissive or disdainful — it isn’t at all. But if you ask a group of dramatic lit professors that question, you are likely to get a parade of broken, dysfunctional and suicidal women, most of them completely uninteresting to me. The play belongs to Tom, not to Amanda, however interesting the role of Amanda may be.
What are some of the great roles that you have played? Medea was one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever played, at least in Robinson Jeffers’ version of the story. Playing Kate Hepburn in Tea at Five was pure delight, and I adored playing Sarah Bernhardt in Memoir, even though I did think the play was pretty terrible. I had a ball playing Mae West in Dirty Blonde, but I thought I was too tall and thin to do her justice. I have played Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, have been Lady Macbeth twice, and Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream six times, all but one of which were fun and very satisfying.
I have even had some small success in American musical theater, where I believe most of the great women’s roles migrated. Playing Roxie in Chicago and Adelaide in Guys & Dolls were both enormous fun.
What is the state of female roles in theater today. Would you describe the characters as fully evolved? Well, it depends what you mean by fully evolved. As a 19th-century scholar, I can say with certainty that there are some fabulous female roles in most of those old scripts. Marguerite in La Dame Aux Camelias used to be the judgment mark of a successful actress. Anything from the repertories of the greatest of the grande dames like Bernhardt and Eleanora Duse are terrific, meaty and complex roles, but are they considered fully evolved? I adore Restoration comedies and there are some awesome roles for women in them.
Essentially, I do not believe any time period has a lock on “the truth” or “great writing” when it comes to developing great roles for women, and contemporary stereotypes are no more truthful or interesting than those of past eras. Is the role of Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? a better or more evolved role than Clytemnestra in Agamemnon? Not to me it isn’t. I have no interest in Martha, but I’d love to play Clytemnestra.
Contemporary takes on the classics do a lot of gender-bending, like my drag role as Henry IV and as Boyet in Love’s Labour’s Lost, but I’m never certain how successful those are, or even should be. I confess to a great deal of discomfort with gender-bending, even when it works.
In Tandem Theatre presents Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie at the Tenth Street Theatre, 628 N. 10th St., Milwaukee, from Sept. 25 to Oct. 19. Go to intandemtheatre.org or phone 414-271-1371.
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