Staging ‘The Glass Menagerie’ on the Fire Escapes That Inspired It

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ST. LOUIS — There’s a knowing twinkle in Tom Wingfield’s eye.

He’s standing out on the second-floor fire escape, delivering the opening monologue of Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie” like a magician who knows his audience recognizes the trick. Wingfield, the play’s narrator and a thinly veiled self-portrait of Williams himself, played here by Bradley James Tejeda, sets the scene: “I take you back to an alley in St. Louis.”

And there’s that twinkle, reminding us where we are.

We’re not just in St. Louis, where Williams grew up and where his semi-autobiographical memory play unfolds. And not just in an alley, in the parking lot behind a fire-escape-covered apartment building much like the one where the Wingfield family might reside.

We are on the corner of Westminster and Walton in the city’s Central West End neighborhood, outside the actual apartment building where Williams once lived. These are the fire escapes that likely helped inspire “The Glass Menagerie” in the first place.

Williams’s family moved to 4633 Westminster Place — now called “The Tennessee” — from Mississippi in 1918, when Williams was 7, and lived there for four years before moving elsewhere in the city. He was long gone by the time he wrote “The Glass Menagerie,” his first hit, in 1944 — but this production, which opened Thursday from the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, still feels unexpectedly immersive, with a set that stretches from a small stage in the parking lot to the existing maze of metal walkways that cover the side of the building.

“We’re using fire escapes that he probably walked on,” the director, Brian Hohlfeld, said in an interview the week of opening night, adding, “It is very humbling and very daunting.”

Hohlfeld and Carrie Houk, the festival’s executive artistic director, had initially targeted a local auditorium with ties to Williams’s early theater career for a 2020 “Menagerie” production. (That edition, last November, became a radio play.) As they weighed venue options for this year’s festival with health and safety considerations during the pandemic, the apartments seemed to be a serendipitous fit.

Houk tracked down the owner of the building through Airbnb, where most of the nine units are available to rent — “The boyhood home of playwright Tennessee Williams” is listed as a main draw, with the going rate at the time of publication around $160 a night. The owner, Houk said in an interview, gave an immediate yes.

Hohlfeld, a St. Louis native who now lives in California, and the cast — which also includes Brenda Currin, Elizabeth Teeter and Chauncy Thomas — are staying on location in the apartments during the run, which ends on Aug. 29. The housing decision was made, in part, to meet the Actors’ Equity Association’s ventilation guidelines — and frankly, Houk said, they needed the doorway. Many of the show’s entrances and exits are made through the back door of one of the units, to and from the second-floor fire escape.

The festival has had the typical concerns that most open-air productions have — mainly, the unpredictability of St. Louis weather in August. But unlike other outdoor undertakings here — the Muny and the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival have both dealt with their fair share of rainy Missouri summers — putting on a show in an active neighborhood, on a residential street, comes with its own challenges.

“Yesterday during rehearsal, this guy comes out to empty his trash. He walked down three stories with his trash bag, and we had to direct him toward the trash bin,” Hohlfeld said. “He was polite enough to go around front when he came back.”

Opening night conditions were slightly better. Actors only had to compete with a car alarm, a distant siren or two and a passing car’s thumping bass in the alley.

But, Hohlfeld conceded, the ambience can also add something neat: “Occasionally lights will be turned on in the units, turned off, and it just gives it real life.”

At least from the outside, nearby residents don’t seem to mind the noise — most passers-by on Thursday night stopped to take in a scene or two from the sidewalk, and a neighbor gave a standing ovation from the porch next door.

“One of the things we were worried about is the neighbors complaining,” Houk said, “but I think they’re fascinated by it.”

St. Louis is admittedly an odd location for a festival celebrating Williams, considering that it’s a place he notoriously despised. “When the Williams family moved to St. Louis from the South, it was a different St. Louis than it is now,” Houk said.

Houk, who added that getting the festival started several years ago was a “battle” for that reason, thinks Williams didn’t hate the city so much as his family’s circumstances, many of which are on display in “The Glass Menagerie.”

“It’s really about how he was trying desperately to get out of St. Louis, but at the same time, it captures the city and why he wanted to get out,” Hohlfeld said. “I think if he had moved here at a different time, he might have had a different attitude.”

Still, the script is riddled with plenty of St. Louis references, all of which serve as additional winks to the audience: mentions of Washington University, where Williams attended for a time, and of several institutions in Forest Park (a bucolic spot that easily rivals Central Park, to anyone you ask here) — the art museum, the zoo’s massive 1904 World’s Fair bird cage and the Jewel Box greenhouse.

And on Thursday night, in case any further reminder was needed of exactly where we were, one man stretching his legs during intermission posed the most familiar and inconsequential St. Louis greeting there is: Where, he wondered, did Williams go to high school?

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