Staging ‘The Glass Menagerie’ Where Tennessee Williams’ St. Louis Story Began
Tennessee Williams’ beloved “memory play,” “The Glass Menagerie,” has been performed all over the world. Now, on Aug. 19, it opens in a place like no other: on the grounds of the St. Louis apartment building that helped inspire it.
As a boy, Williams (then known as Tom) moved to St. Louis with his family, living on Westminster Place in the city’s Central West End neighborhood for four years before moving to Enright Avenue in University City. Williams took details from both apartments in envisioning the home of the Wingfield family in “The Glass Menagerie,” describing their apartment building in the play as “one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of living-units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centers of lower middle-class population.”
The apartment building on Enright no longer exists. But 4633 Westminster Place remains a residential building, one that now holds a number of Airbnb units that draw on Williams’ fame. And now the building’s grounds will host the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis’ new production of “The Glass Menagerie,” with a stage assembled in its parking lot and the set as “an organic extension of the back of the building,” in the words of festival director Carrie Houk.
So how do the Airbnb guests feel about the inconvenience of the production? L.A.-based director Brian Hohlfeld explained on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air that the production booked the apartments to serve as its living quarters: “The cast and myself are occupying a couple of the apartments, and they're beautiful.”
For Houk and Hohlfeld, the production reunites three-fourths of the cast of the radio play version of “The Glass Menagerie,” which premiered at last year’s Williams festival. That production was originally meant to be onstage, shifting to an audio recording due to the pandemic shutting down live theater. Bringing the actors back together provides a second chance for the director and his dream cast.
“They're a family,” Houk said. “Totally convincing, even at this early point in rehearsal. They've remained friends and they bonded — rebonded — very rapidly when they all came back together.”
And that’s a good thing, because the production is operating at a near sprint. The actors have just 2½ weeks of rehearsal before opening night, and just one week on set.
What a set, though. Both Houk and Hohlfeld acknowledged feeling a dose of magic just from standing where the playwright once stood.
“We’re using the actual fire escapes as part of the set,” Hohlfeld marveled. “And we know that somewhere on this fire escape, he stood and he smoked, and he looked at the moon, and he heard the dance hall and all the things that are mentioned in the play. When you stop to think about it, it's a little overwhelming, a little humbling.
“But,” he added, “we don't have time to think about it.” On with the show.
What: “The Glass Menagerie”
When: Aug. 19 to 29
Where: 4633 Westminster Place, St. Louis, MO 63108
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Paola Rodriguez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.