Tennessee Williams’ ‘The Glass Menagerie’ speaks to Judith Ivey

— The last time Judith Ivey played a Tennessee Williams role was opposite Karl Malden. As introductions to playwrights go, it’s hard to imagine many more authoritative guides than a man who had famously shared the stage with Jessica Tandy, Marlon Brando and Kim Hunter in Elia Kazan’s 1947 premiere of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Judith Ivey: An article in Sunday’s Calendar section about actress Judith Ivey’s taking on the role of Amanda Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie” said that she’d appeared in Neil Dunn’s play “Steaming.” The playwright’s first name is Nell. —

Ivey’s encounter with Malden was roughly 40 years ago, while she was studying acting at Illinois State University. The play was “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

“Karl Malden came to our school as an artist master-class teacher, and I did Maggie the Cat,” she recalled. “My acting partner irritated Mr. Malden, so Mr. Malden told him ‘Go sit down,’ and he got up and became Brick. It was amazing. If there’s anyone who’s not like Brick it’s him, but he just became Brick.”

That workshop created a hunger to perform in a Williams play that has gnawed at Ivey ever since and is now yielding what may be the performance of her career as Amanda Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie.”

Directed by Gordon Edelstein, who has stripped the play of its sentimentality and coaxed his cast members to a piercing understanding of their characters, the production began life at Long Wharf Theater in New Haven in 2009. After an extended off-Broadway run for Roundabout Theater Company in the spring, it comes to Los Angeles Sept. 12 for a five-week engagement at the Mark Taper Forum.

“I had wanted to play Amanda since high school when I first started acting,” Ivey said over a salad in the green room of the Laura Pels Theater during the New York run. She was joined by Edelstein and by Patch Darragh, who plays Amanda’s son, Tom.

“I’ve been preparing for this role for a long time,” she said. “I think I understand Tennessee Williams better than I would Arthur Miller. There are certain American playwrights that speak to me. I grew up in Texas and have tons of Southern relatives, so the South is a part of who I am.”

Many actors tend to overplay the faded-Southern-belle aspect of Amanda, substituting mannered, half-mad girlishness for emotional complexity and often misplacing the humor in her impassioned reveries. Not only is Ivey richly funny in the role, her approach to the character is clear-eyed, trenchant and fearless, revealing the pathos of this suffocating, self-deluded woman by subtle degrees. Even at her most exasperating or insensitive, Amanda’s behavior is clearly motivated by overwhelming love for her children.

“I never had any interest in portraying Blanche,” Ivey said of the role in “Streetcar” that traditionally is considered the actor’s holy grail among Williams’ women."There’s something inherent in her that doesn’t really speak to me, where there’s something in Amanda that does. He has a range of women, and I tend to be on the more earthy side of it.”

Ivey won Tony Awards for featured actress in a play in 1983 for Neil Dunn’s “Steaming,” and for David Rabe’s “Hurlyburly” two years later. In addition to numerous acting and directing credits on stage, her film roles over the years have ranged from " Brighton Beach Memoirs” through “The Lonely Guy” to “Flags of Our Fathers.”

It’s surprising that a two-time Tony-winning American actor with four decades’ experience is only now making her debut in a professional production of a Tennessee Williams play. But the entire key creative team here is relatively new to the playwright, which may account for the freshness of the production’s insights.

Edelstein, who has been artistic director of Long Wharf since 2002 and for the five years before that of Seattle’s ACT Theater, had been biding his time to stage the play.

“I first saw it when I was a teenager, in a college production,” he said. “I’m sure if I saw that production today I might have issues with it, but at the time I was devastated by the beauty of the play. I’m not one of those directors who thinks at age 25 he can direct every play. But I’ve felt ready for the last five or six years to do ‘The Glass Menagerie’ and was waiting for the right moment.” When the production comes to Los Angeles, three original castmembers will be joined by Ben McKenzie (“Southland”) as the Gentleman Caller.

In his production notes, Williams gave carte blanche for his play to be presented “with unusual freedom of convention,” albeit specifying that any device employed should serve a more penetrating interpretation of reality. Edelstein has embraced that elasticity by lifting the gauzy veil of memory, creating a framing device that provides a direct conduit, via Tom, to the experience of the play’s characters, which echoes the playwright’s own family history. His central concept has been the most divisive aspect of a production whose New York reviews ranged from rapture to indignation.

A restless poet trapped between love and guilt, between loyalty and desperate self-preservation, Tom has always been a stand-in for Williams. But in Darragh’s thorny incarnation, all distance separating narrator from playwright has dissolved. His Tom is also unambiguously gay, an aspect usually more suggested than stated.

The drama unfolds here in a shabby New Orleans hotel room, from which Tom conjures memories of his mother and frail sister Laura, played by Keira Keeley, in the St. Louis tenement apartment they shared. Pacing back and forth from his typewriter, taking slugs of whisky, he folds those corrosive recollections into a play to exorcize his survivor guilt.

“The strategy was to be with Tom, remembering and writing, like we are with our parents, who are living elsewhere or gone, and our sisters and brothers who are not with us,” Edelstein said. “It was a way to help people into the play.”

Darragh had been eager to sink his teeth into a Williams classic as well. In his case, the seed was planted while working on scenes from “Streetcar” at Juilliard in 1996.

The production opened at Long Wharf with the standard short rehearsal time, but there was a gap of more than six months before the New York opening. During that break, Darragh devoured documentaries about Williams. He traveled to St. Louis to see the apartment where Williams lived with his sister and mother (“I’ve got a rock from the front yard in my dressing room”), to walk the alley and visit the movie theater where Tom goes to escape Amanda’s obsessive harangues. He even left a bottle of whisky on Williams’ grave at Calvary Cemetery.

“Now I don’t have to imagine it all, it’s real,” Darragh said. “When I say I take you back to an alley in St. Louis, I know that alley.”

The actor also spent time in New Orleans, Williams’ adopted home, though he concedes that Super Bowl weekend was perhaps not the ideal moment to commune with the ghost of a dead writer.

“It’s always mad down there, but I was scared for my life a few times on Bourbon Street,” he admitted. “I was the guy reading Tennessee Williams poems in the Café du Monde and telling everyone to keep it down, please. The ‘Who Dat Nation’ was in full effect. Beyond that, it was very valuable to me to spend three days and nights alone in a hotel room with no computer. I didn’t call anybody, and I told everybody to leave me alone, though I think I did text Judy and Gordon a couple of times late at night.”

Ivey searched closer to home for her characterization, borrowing elements from women she has known, including family members. “I will say my mother talks at length, like Amanda,” she said. “I’ll give you that one because she’s already figured that out.”

Most regular theatergoers have seen “The Glass Menagerie” at least once, and as Edelstein points out, Amanda, Tom and Laura are up there with Blanche, Stanley, Willy Loman of “Death of a Salesman” and the Stage Manager in “Our Town” among the most iconic characters in American drama. “There’s a handful of characters that you can do a ‘Saturday Night Live’ sketch on and everybody’s in on the joke,” he said.

Among the satisfactions of doing this play for the director and cast has been how often audience members familiar with the work have acknowledged their sense of deeper discovery. The responses of the uninitiated have been equally rewarding. Ivey was particularly touched by the reaction of a friend’s 11-year-old daughter.

“She was standing there after the show, tear-stained, and she just couldn’t stop,” Ivey said. “I asked why she was so upset by it and she said, ‘I was so afraid for you. I wanted to know what was going to happen to this mother.’ It’s usually not Amanda they’re worried about, but she understood the desperation of the mother.”

“It thrills me that people are seeing this for the first time and are still being impacted by it,” she added. “But that’s the truth of this play.”