By: David Sheward
The Glass Menagerie is one of those American classics that has been staged so many times, it’s difficult to imagine a production breathing new life into it. But just as he did with Once, director John Tiffany has stripped Tennessee Williams’s 1944 career-maker of any extraneous elements and delivered it to us, fresh, alive, and powerful. This bracing production is now at the Booth Theatre after a run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass.
Tiffany takes his central concept from the opening moments of the play. The narrator Tom, a stand-in for the young Williams, explains he has "tricks in his pockets." Through the magic of theater he then re-creates the miserable St. Louis flat where he lived with his overbearing mother, Amanda, and pathetic, crippled sister, Laura. Tiffany emphasizes the magical and illusionary nature of Williams’s script. Laura emerges like a phantom from the sofa. Amanda suddenly appears from behind a screen. As in a dream or memory, there is barely any furnishing and no props except for a single tiny unicorn as a representative of Laura’s titular collection. The characters move with unrealistic, ballet-like gestures as if dancing in a fantasy.
In addition, Tiffany imagines Tom is recalling his painful past while standing on a dock gazing at a dark body of water. After all, Williams explains, the narrator has left his family to roam the world as a merchant seaman. Thus set designer Bob Crowley, with the immeasurable aide of Natasha Katz’s poetic lighting, creates a bare series of platforms surrounded by a moat of black liquid. This is the only exit route, apart from an M.C. Escher-esque fire escape leading nowhere. When Laura retreats into her imaginary world, she staggers downstage and almost plunges into the inky depths. That water is the unreal realm she and Tom long to inhabit, away from the harsh sphere of typing classes and shoe factories.
In this production, Amanda, usually portrayed as an unreasonable if comical harridan, is the realistic one. In a career-defining performance, Cherry Jones tempers Amanda’s every movement with love for her children and knowledge of what it takes to survive. This is no dreamer lost in revelry of her genteel Southern girlhood. Although those monologues of Amanda’s past are delivered with vivifying detail, taking up the dance theme she moves as if she were still leading a cotillion. When Amanda learns the long-awaited gentleman caller, intended as a beau for the pitiful Laura, is already engaged, Jones’s face is frozen in a mask of civility. But the emotional turmoil underneath is clearly visible in the way she straightens the caller’s lapel and holds onto it for a few extra seconds, as if grasping her last hope for her daughter’s happiness before it vanishes.
As Tom, Zachary Quinto is wonderfully funny when exasperated with Amanda’s fussing. He also inhabits the character both in the moment and the future as he looks back and regrets deserting her and Laura. It’s a brilliant feat of acting. Celia Keenan-Bolger is equally dazzling as his forlorn sister, making her world of glass animals and sweet music a very real place. Brian J. Smith is compassionate and endearing as Jim, the gentleman caller.
September 29, 2013
Sept. 26- Feb 23. Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., NYC. Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 15 minutes, including intermission. $77-137. (212) 239-6200. www.telecharge.com
Photo: Michael J. Lutch