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NEW YORK – After a string of mediocre Tennessee Williams revivals in recent Broadway seasons, theatergoers might be forgiven for becoming jaded about this leading 20th century American dramatist’s unparalleled gift for soaring poetry tethered to penetrating emotional truth. It’s difficult to imagine a more potent remedy for that fatigue than John Tiffany’s transfixing production of The Glass Menagerie, which accesses the extraordinary intimacy of this landmark 1944 play in ways that give the impression you’re seeing it for the first time. A performance of towering complexity from Cherry Jones is flanked by equally illuminating work from her three co-stars, making this essential theater.
Premiered to deserved acclaim earlier this year at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., the production sees the brilliant Jones revitalize one of the greatest roles for women in contemporary dramatic literature. Her Amanda Wingfield emerges as a character whose grand theatricality is balanced by compassionate exposure of her human frailty. No less impressive is Zachary Quinto’s knockout Broadway debut as Williams’ most nakedly autobiographical character, Tom, the haunted commentator from whom this memory play erupts like a recurring bout of fever.
Rarely is that central concept of memory so woven into every fiber of the narrative. “I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion,” says Tom. He maintains that promise in a sustained recollection in which the glaze of memory rarely obscures the scars of experience. Only his expressionistic evocations of domestic rituals, played out to Nico Muhly’s shimmering music, seem to occupy a tender place in Tom’s mind.
English director Tiffany, lauded in New York for Black Watch and Once, digs deep into this American classic, working with his frequent movement collaborator Steven Hoggett and visionary designer Bob Crowley. Tiffany’s staging takes its cue from Williams’ production notes, which allow for “unusual freedom of convention,” while specifying that stylization should only be employed in the service of reality. Crowley arranges the parlor and dining room of the Wingfields’ modest apartment on twin islands, suspended on a sea of black liquid and bolted to an endless fire escape that seems to extend into the bowels of the earth as well as up into the heavens.
Bathed in Natasha Katz’s exquisite lighting, the set is a symbolic manifestation of the family’s precarious place in the world. When the characters step to the edge and contemplate the void that surrounds them, their fear is palpable. Even Tom’s longing to escape is held in check by awareness of what his inevitable exit will mean for his chronically shy sister Laura (Celia Keenan-Bolger). In one of the most beautiful of the silent balletic flourishes that Tiffany and Hoggett have devised, Laura responds to her mother’s delusional stubbornness with an uncharacteristic show of strength as she drags Amanda to the precipice to face the stark truth. The look of desolate panic on Jones’ face as she reaches behind her for a steadying hand to hold is heartbreaking.
From Tom’s opening monologue, Quinto makes it clear that this account of his final time spent with his mother and sister back in St. Louis during the Great Depression is colored by a poet’s gift for descriptive interpretation, but also by the dull ache of a man unable to shake the burden of regret. Given that this hindsight re-enactment springs from Tom’s mind, he seems aware that the future pulling him away from home will be only marginally freer than his suffocating present. His protectiveness toward his sister is etched with wrenching emotional transparency, and while his ultimate abandonment of her is an act of desperate self-preservation, it’s also one of everlasting self-harm.
Of course, that fate is written into Williams’ text. But few actors expose the conflict roiling away beneath Tom’s languid Southern drawl with anything close to Quinto’s raw feeling. Even at his most biting and sardonic, when overbearing Amanda’s harping drives her son to exasperated cruelty, the characterization is steeped in melancholy.
Amanda can often be simplistically reduced to a living anachronism – a fluttery remnant of the glorious Old South who seeks refuge from her shabby present circumstances in vivid reminiscences of her youth. But in Jones’ performance, the sting of disappointment is never far removed. Her Amanda reeks of equal parts self-pity and self-aggrandizement, her bruised gentility making her a pathetic figure. With her trampling insensitivity and ceaseless talk, she can be maddening, even monstrous. But beneath her airs of obsolete refinement and her domineering manner is a frightened woman clinging to a broken dream of happiness for her children.
One of Jones’ most shattering moments comes in Amanda’s delirious reverie about the spring she met her husband: “Malaria fever and jonquils and then this… boy.” The loaded pause before that final word carries not only the romantic thrill, but the hurt of the 16 years since the handsome wanderer abandoned her, and the humiliating acknowledgment of her own foolishness.
Jones captures the pathos and rich humor of the character, never allowing her to become ridiculous. Even when she’s gliding about in a silly, frilly lace cotillion gown that’s at least two decades out of date, Amanda’s powerful charm gives credence to her boasts about the renowned vivaciousness and wit of the girl who attracted “gentlemen callers” from all over the Mississippi Delta.
Her refusal to concede that her physically handicapped daughter will never be that girl is a significant part of the play’s tragedy. When Tom finally gives in to his mother’s endless badgering and brings home a friend from his warehouse job to meet Laura, Amanda practically explodes with joy. But beneath all her fussing and flirting excitement is the fierce sense of purpose of a woman setting a trap. When her hopes are extinguished, the defeat is devastating.
In Keenan-Bolger’s finely nuanced performance, Laura’s fragility co-exists with an innate survival instinct to which she clings despite her mother’s efforts to force her out of her shell. Her solitary moments of peace are especially lovely, as she limps across the room to gaze at her collection of glass animals, here represented by a single unicorn that catches the light in magical ways.
Laura’s candlelit scene with Jim O’Connor (Brian J. Smith), the gentleman caller recruited by Tom, is so intensely private in this production that just watching it feels almost like an intrusion. It’s tremendously affecting to observe this withdrawn creature – too breakable to exist in the real world – melt by infinitesimal degrees under the chivalrous attention of the boy she worshipped from a distance in high school.
Smith is superb in this small but pivotal role. He conveys the kindness but also the ego of a young man more than willing to be reminded of his golden youth, back when a promising future seemed guaranteed. Jim is so easily seduced by Laura’s heroic vision of him that his admission of dishonesty seems almost as crushing for him as it is for Amanda. For Laura, it serves merely to reconfirm the distrust of the world that she momentarily put aside.
No matter how archetypal these characters and familiar their experiences, when played with such subtlety and emotional veracity, they yield lingering rewards in the sad music of memory.
Venue: Booth Theater, New York (runs through Feb. 23)
Cast: Cherry Jones, Zachary Quinto, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Brian J. Smith
Playwright: Tennessee Williams
Director: John Tiffany
Set & costume designer: Bob Crowley
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Music: Nico Muhly
Sound designer: Clive Goodwin
Movement: Steven Hoggett
Presented by Jeffrey Richards, John N. Hart Jr., Jerry Frankel, Lou Spisto/Lucky VIII, Infinity Stages, Scott M. Delman, Jam Theatricals, Mauro Taylor, Rebecca Gold, Michael Palitz, Charles E. Stone, Will Trice, GFour Productions
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