Hanley Smith: The Glass Menagerie’s “Laura”

Hanley Smith: The Glass Menagerie’s “Laura”

Hanley Smith (Laura)
Hanley Smith (Laura)

eBackstage Newsletter had a chance to talk with HANLEY SMITH about her character in The Glass Menagerie, the painfully shy, withdrawn , daughter/sister, Laura. Ms. Smith is a New York-based actor, who is also a proud member of the folk trio, A Band Called Honalee, and the devised-theatre-based company, Sinking Ship Productions.

A challenging role, we ask Ms. Smith how one prepares for a role like Laura, and what she, as an actor, drew on to create her.

HS: I love Laura. I think she is a lovely, lovely person, trapped by circumstances and her own anxieties. I ache for her when she is in distress and rejoice for her when she finds hope and humor in her life. I relate to Laura with my heart and my head.

On an intellectual level, research is an invaluable tool in the actor’s toolbox. Our director, Mary Robinson, has kindly lent me her copy of an amazing biography by John Lahr called Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh. From this text and others, I have been able to learn a lot about Rose Williams, Tennessee’s sister, who suffered from mental illness and who was ultimately given a bilateral prefrontal lobotomy without Tennessee’s knowledge.

The parallels between Rose Williams and Laura Wingfield are multitudinous and, in many ways, saddening. For example, Rose collected little glass animals just like Laura, and the reason is heartrending: Rose’s window overlooked an alleyway where stray cats were often cornered and mauled by stray dogs. To block out the carnage, Rose kept her blinds closed, plunging her room into a kind of perpetual twilight. To brighten the atmosphere, she painted her furniture white, hung white curtains, and collected little glass pieces. I can decide as actor whether or not this anecdote about Rose is true for Laura as well. Either way, this kind of research into Rose’s world gives me a better understanding of Laura’s world.

On an emotional level, I empathize with what I think is most important to Laura — her loved ones and their happiness — and the paralyzing helplessness she feels when she cannot assist her loved ones in achieving that happiness, because it is up to them. I empathize with the complicated net that “family” can be. I empathize with the social awkwardness Laura endured throughout her childhood. And I know what it is to love a man with all my heart and hope. Luckily for me, I got to marry him. You’ll have to come see the show to find out if Laura is equally lucky.

But I think The Glass Menagerie is the beautiful classic that it is because we can all relate to it; we all have parts of these characters inside of us; and hopefully we can learn from the play about how we want to love and live in the world.

Many well-known actors have portrayed Laura Wingfield on stage or screen. Fans of theatre want to know how difficult is it to find a performance when the role has been played so notably by others? 

HS: To be honest, I haven’t seen any of the film adaptation of The Glass Menagerie in a very long time, so I no longer remember the specifics of those legendary performances. And by some strange coincidence, I have never seen the play performed on stage. (For shame!) So I am somewhat liberated from the burden of competing with “those who came before me.” But seeing talented actors perform a role is a marvelous learning experience, so I am also denied the privilege of learning from “those who came before me.”

I have played other roles portrayed by well-known actors, though, and I rely on (and revel in) the completely unique alchemy of that particular production. The text is the same, but your fellow actors, the director, the designers, the theater, the audiences, and who you are a person, are utterly different and unrepeatable. The once-in-a-lifetime aspect of the theater is one of my favorite things about it.

Laura has a collection of glass animals. We wanted to know if Ms. Smith has any collections of her own?

HS: As a matter of fact, I have a little glass elephant that my mother gave me! Elephants are my favorite animal. I brought this token with me to Utah, and he keeps me company in the dressing room at the theater. But he is not a part of a collection. My adorable husband gives me every bicentennial quarter he finds, and I keep them in one of my dresser drawers. My maternal grandmother gives me a Cherished Teddies figurine every Christmas, and I love them. But these are all gifts.

For myself, I collect Victoria Holt novels. My mom gave me a copy of Mistress of Mellyn when I was a young adolescent, and I have been hooked ever since. They are now mostly out of print, so I enjoy finding them in used bookstores, like buried treasure.