A New Look at the Classic The Glass Menagerie at 4th Wall Theatre Co.

(L-R) Joseph "Joe P" Palmore and Kim Tobin-Lehl in rehearsal for The Glass Menagerie.
(L-R) Joseph "Joe P" Palmore and Kim Tobin-Lehl in rehearsal for The Glass Menagerie. Photo by Jeff McMorrough
It's a show that Joseph "Joe P" Palmore never thought he'd be in, let alone be called to audition for, he readily admits with a laugh. How does an African-American man fit into an iconic family that has always been portrayed by white actors?  So he had some hesitations.

But Philip Lehl, the co-founder and co-artistic director of 4th Wall Theatre Co. told Palmore that he thought he would be great as Tom Wingfield, the Tennessee Williams character trapped by his mother's memories and the harsh realities of his life.

The Glass Menagerie, the breakthrough play for Williams, premiered in 1944 and has gone on to be one of the most-performed plays from the 20th Century. In the upcoming 4th Wall production to be directed by Lehl, Kim Tobin-Lehl (co-founder and co-artistic director with her husband) will play Amanda Wingfield, a Southern belle deserted by her husband and living on nerve and dreams for her son and her fragile daughter, Laura.

Growing up, Palmore (winner of the 2019 Houston Theater Best Actor award) says he remembers reading out loud passages from The Glass Menagerie in English class. And though he never expected to be cast in it in professional theater, he jumped at the chance to try on the Tom role.

"He has such rich monologues and story telling and poetry and dialog," he says of his character.

"Tom is an oddball. He's eclectic. He didn't go with the flow of things. He didn't fit in as the jock; he wasn't the class clown. He wasn't the smartest guy but he wasn't the dumbest guy either. He fell right in between the lines but always had big dreams. He loved the arts. But due to his circumstances he's forced to take other jobs so he can support his mother and his sister. It's brought him far away from the big dreams he has.

Now Tom's main focus is making sure his mother is taken care of along with his sister, says Palmore. "He still dreams and is conflicted, wanting to chase his own dreams and adventures. He's a conflicted man."

Both Tobin-Lehl and Palmore say they can relate to that kind of conflict. As Palmore puts it: "As an artist you have a circle of work and you're making money and it feels great and you're taking care of your family and all of a sudden it just stops. You're in waiting; during that time there's no income coming in. So as an artist you're at a crossroads. Do I put this to the side and go get a real legit job? That's why I thanked my family at the awards. They allowed me the ability to come and do plays and come play on stages."

As the play starts, Tom is reflecting on the past, on the time years earlier when they were all living together in St. Louis and he was doing mind numbing work in a shoe factory there. His older sister is shy, walks with a limp from an earlier illness, and her mother asks Tom to find a date for Laura. Tom asks Jim, an acquaintance at work, to come over to their place for dinner.

As for Amanda, Tobin-Lehl says: "She's a single mom. She was abandoned by her husband. And this was set in a time where women had not so many options. She puts her daughter in business school to try to be a typist. She fails because she's too afraid. They depend on Tom.

"She's selling dirty magazines over the phone. She's in a department store demonstrating how to wear a bra. She can't work in any kind of management position; she  has no education. She was a debutant; she comes from aristocracy in the Mississippi Delta and that's why she lives those fantasies over and over. She had a slew of men who were courting her and she picked the wrong guy."

Tobin-Lehl says the audience never gets a true picture of who Amanda's husband was. "She picked a guy she fell in love with because he was beautiful and charming. All she talks about is how charming he was. We get that sense that a woman shouldn't be seduced by charm and looks alone. And that this guy decided he didn't like the day to day life of taking care of a family so he took off. And now she worries that her son is taking after this man. He likes the idea of dreaming."

A large part of this play is the breakdown of what the American dream ideology implies for people, Tobin-Lehl says. "It's this idea that we've created in America this idea that what making an American family is is this horrible, factory-driven day-to-day grind that creates a life that is so ho hum, hum drum, mechanical and horrible that nobody can commit to it and stay in it and it kills your dreams."

When this play first appeared and eventually (yes, there was a bit of a shaky start) shot Williams up to the success level, there had not been something like this on stage, they both said. "People had never seen their lives like this on stage with these words and this poetry behind it," Palmore says.

Performances are scheduled for October 11 through November 2 at  7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays at Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring Street. For information, call 832-767-4991 or visit $17-$53.
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
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