The Theater at Monmouth has always tackled the classics.

Shakespeare has been the theater’s forte since its founding in 1970, and its mission includes a commitment to bringing an innovative approach to a variety of classics.

The theater’s new producing artistic director, Dawn McAndrews, reinforces that mission with this week’s opening of the Tennessee Williams autobiographical American drama “The Glass Menagerie.”

The play tells of a family’s struggle in 1937 to find a balance between a difficult past and an uncertain future, and explores the bonds of family, the weight of memory and the force of loss, said director Bill Van Horn.

“This is as classic as American culture can get,” said Van Horn, who lives most of the year in Philadelphia and is back at Monmouth for his 11th season.

Van Horn directed this play two years ago at Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia. It felt like a revelation.

“This is one of those plays you know in high school and are told you should like it,” he said.

Van Horn has no doubt this play is autobiographical. He writes in his director’s notes, “What elevates it from mere confessional to great art is the probing honesty, deep understanding and loving tenderness with which (Williams) creates and caresses these four characters as they reach for happiness in St. Louis in the Great Depression.”

Van Horn has an expert cast, including Portland-based actor Dustin Tucker as Tom and longtime Monmouth regular Janis Stevens as Amanda, Tom’s mother.

Tom works as a laborer to support his family, but wants to be a poet. He feels burdened by his family, and escapes to local bars.

Amanda is “a faded Southern belle” who has been abandoned by her husband and is trying to raise her two children with little means. Her dreams have been dashed, and she talks longingly about the glory of her youth.

Stevens, a 2006 Drama Desk nominee, gets the chance to play one of the great roles in the history of American theater as Amanda, Van Horn said.

“The scene where she tells her children what it was like when she was younger is as dramatic as any battle scene,” he said.

Portland audiences know Tucker for his comic roles. Tom allows Tucker to stretch, Van Horn said.

“Dusty excels in those wacky comic roles, but I don’t think he gets the opportunity to expand and test his talents in other kinds of roles often enough. This is a chance for him to really push himself,” he said.

The cast also includes Ambien Mitchell and Camden Brown.

“The Glass Menagerie” premiered in Chicago in 1944 and moved to Broadway a year later, when it won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award.

It was the first of the big three that Williams wrote, including “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1947 and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in 1955. With those three shows, Williams established himself as a titan of American theater, alongside Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller.

Monmouth is one of just a few American theater companies that still produces plays in rotating repertory. It opens four shows in four weeks, and presents all of them on a rotating basis throughout the summer.

This summer marks Van Horn’s 11th season at Monmouth. He loves this theater, and relishes in the opportunity to stretch himself as both an actor and a director while he is here.

He has one of the great comic roles of the summer in “Tartuffe” (we won’t spoil the secret by saying too much here, but he gets the biggest laughs in this exceptionally well-acted Moliere comedy), two minor roles in Shakespeare’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” and the role of Falstaff in “King Henry IV, Part I.”

“Tartuffe” and “Two Gents” have already opened, “The Glass Menagerie” opens this week, and “King Henry IV” opens next week.

It’s a full summer of hard work.

“Opening four plays in four weeks is an amazing experience,” said Van Horn. “It’s like no other experience you can get. Here, you get to attack the work the way you thought you would when you first got interested in acting.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

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Twitter: pphbkeyes