The revolutionary concept of seeing the lead character in Tennessee William's classic "The Glass Menagerie" as a homeless man came to creator Hans Fleischmann appropriately enough while he was living out of his 1987 Chevy conversion van on the streets of Los Angeles in 2011.
"It's 2 in the morning, and there is this guy talking loudly right outside my van. He just sounds like this Hollywood jerk," recalls the 37-year-old Prospect Heights actor and director, who had ventured to Hollywood to strike it big.
Slipping into character as the agitated, screaming man outside his van, Fleischmann shouts, "I'll get my lawyer on it! … Yeah, well you tell him … Oh, no, no, no, no, no! … Do they know who I am?"
As the tirade stretches into its second half-hour, Fleischmann pries his weary head off his pillow and steps outside, hoping his mere presence will force the mover-and-shaker to take his cellphone screed elsewhere.
"He wasn't on a cellphone," says Fleischmann, realizing the man was homeless, had no phone and was responding to the voices heard only in his head. "And I went, 'Oh, my God. That's the character. That's Tom.'"
In traditional productions of "The Glass Menagerie," Tom Wingfield is "this sentimental narrator telling you how he abandoned his mother and sister and the guilt he feels," Fleischmann says, adding that theatergoers often walk out thinking Tom "is a jerk." In Fleischmann's version, Tom appears more as another victim in a dysfunctional family struggling with mental illness issues, alcohol and poor decisions.
Flush with his euphoria from hitting upon the concept of Tom as a homeless man, Fleischmann phones legendary Chicago artistic director Richard Cotovsky, still in the middle of the night.
"Getting people on board to do 'The Glass Menagerie' is not easy as it's been done, and I am saying, 'Let's do 'The Glass Menagerie' and I'll be Tom and I'll direct it, too," recalls Fleischmann, who explained his homeless vision. "My beard's down to my chest now and my hair is ratty. This is going to be great."
Unlikely as it might have seemed, Cotovsky saw the potential. "I was so passionate about it," says Fleischmann, who paid somebody to watch his van while he flew back to direct and star in the play. Now Fleischmann and the play have made a home in Chicago.
The show debuted in 2012 at the Mary-Arrchie Theater in Chicago to rave reviews. After a sold-out run this winter, the Jeff-nominated production is transferring to Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., where previews begin Wednesday and the run continues through June. In addition to Fleischmann, this production includes original cast members Walter Briggs, Joanne Dubach and Maggie Cain of Glenview. Tickets are available at theaterwit.org or by calling (773) 975-8150.
A graduate of Illinois State University, Fleischmann received a prestigious acting scholarship at Steppenwolf Theatre Company and won a best-supporting Jeff Award for his work in Neil Labute's "A Dark, Dark House." He's been in productions at the Goodman Theatre, Illinois Shakespeare Festival and other companies, landed TV parts on Patrick Swayze's "The Beast" and on "The Chicago Code," and been cast in commercials. But he isn't a typical actor.
The son of blue-collar parents (his dad, Joe, works in transportation for a computer company, and his mom, Karen, works for a grocery chain), Fleischmann wasn't in a theater production at Wheeling High School. Neither were his siblings Mark, Lisa or Amy. Fleischmann took his first acting class as a way to meet a speech requirement at Harper Community College. He ended up starring as Tom in "The Glass Menagerie." His father recorded it on video and only a few seconds still survive, but that's enough.
"I couldn't believe how bad I was," Fleischmann says, instantly transforming into his younger self repeating lines with more earnestness than passion.
Now in the production of his own invention, Fleischmann comes home from a 16-hour rehearsal and stays awake another two hours figuring how to make his performance better during the next "re-creation" before an audience. "I'm obsessive about my work," notes Fleischmann, who notices if any of the 3,000 glass bottles in the show have been moved from where he wants them. It's an emotional production.
"You can hear the audience weeping, and for me, as an actor, it gets me going," says Fleischmann, who admits to crying for real onstage. "It's a very painful tear, but it's a great thing as an artist to share that tear."