Randy Harrison in The Glass Menagerie(© T. Charles Erickson)
Randy Harrison in The Glass Menagerie
(© T. Charles Erickson)
"It's very exciting when you know a play so well from seeing it and then you actually do it," says Joe Dowling, director of the Guthrie Theater's unusual new production of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. "The first time I saw this play was many years ago in Dublin. It was a little odd hearing the Irish actors trying to deal with the Southern dialect, but the richness of the play came through. Even though it's a great American poetic classic, it translates to every culture."

Like so many theatergoers before them, Guthrie audiences are laughing and weeping at the joys and sorrows experienced by Tom Wingfield, his painfully shy sister Laura, and their domineering, exasperating, loving mother Amanda as they live through the Great Depression in a small St. Louis apartment. The Menagerie cast includes Tony Award winner Harriet Harris as Amanda, Tracey Maloney as Laura, and Jonas Goslow as the "Gentleman Caller." What makes this production unusual is that Dowling has split the role of Tom between two actors: Randy Harrison, best known for his work as Justin Taylor on TV's Queer as Folk, and Guthrie favorite Bill McCallum.

"Tom is quite clearly 22 in the play," notes Dowling, "and I suppose he's in his late 30s or early 40s when he's looking back and narrating. Often, the role is cast somewhere in the middle of that age range, to bridge both of those worlds. Randy was so compelling when he auditioned for us in New York, but I wondered: 'Could a Tom who looks that young and vulnerable be believable as the older man looking back?' So I thought, why not split the role? In the stage directions, Williams writes that 'the narrator is an undisguised convention of the play; he takes whatever license with dramatic convention that is convenient to his purposes.' I thought, 'Okay, I'm going to take you up on that, Tennessee!' "

Harrison, whose stage credits include the Berkshire Theatre Festival productions of Amadeus and Equus, is delighted to have a go at Tom. "I've been in love with this play since I was a young teen," he says. "They did it at my high school in Georgia, but I didn't get cast. That production was the only one I've ever seen -- but the play is so brilliantly written that, when you read it, you immediately understand what the characters are experiencing and fighting for. And it's so fluid that it feels so different every time we run it. I'm excited that we have a nice, long run, because it's going to be great to live in this play for a while."

Of the two-Tom concept, Harrison remarks: "It's fascinating, and I definitely think certain things about the script are illuminated that aren't always clear when it's done as written. Bill McCallum and I look a lot alike, and we have a few moments of simultaneous speech to help tie us together. There are also moments when he's observing the action. I think the audience is more aware that the play is this person's memory, and that there's some distance between where is now and what he's remembering."

Bill McCallum in The Glass Menagerie(© T. Charles Erickson)
Bill McCallum in The Glass Menagerie
(© T. Charles Erickson)
McCallum has made an attempt to meld his characterization with Harrison's. "Randy has the bulk of the stage time," he says, "so I've tried to match my own voice, movements, and gestures to his. We listen closely to each other, and I've been watching how he stands, where he holds his weight. I think it's believable to the audience that the guy Randy is could grow up to be the guy that I am. For my money, the splitting of the role adds another level of complexity or depth to the story; you actually see the play as a retrospective, and you're more aware of the repercussions that the younger character's choices have had on the course of his life."

"Older Tom is never on stage alone," explains Dowling. "Young Tom is always there with him. There's a definite sense that this man is devastated by his memories. Of course, Williams was really writing about his sister Rose; she had a lobotomy and, for the rest of his life, he was guilty over the fact that he didn't prevent it. When you know that, the line 'Blow out your candles, Laura' becomes very, very meaningful."

McCallum wholeheartedly concurs: "At the end of the play, when you have Laura and Amanda left on stage, young Tom standing with his back to them, and older Tom saying, 'Here's what happened to me after this' -- well, the moment is just a little bit more devastating than usual."