A New Way to Reflect on an Oft-Seen Classic
By Lauren Yarger
Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie is one of his most produced plays. In New York alone, we just saw Roundabout Theatre Company’s Off-Broadway version (via Long Wharf in Connecticut) with Judith Ivey in 2010.
On Broadway, Jessica Lange and Julie Harris starred in 2005 and 1995 following version with Jessica Tandy following three other versions back to the original in 1946. (My personal favorite, is a 1973 TV version, believe it or not, with Katharine Hepburn).
It’s back again on Broadway in an exquisitely-staged American Repertory Company production with Cherry Jones in the role of Amanda, a controlling mother obsessed with finding her daughter a gentleman caller while smotherng her writer son, a hardly disguised version of Williams himself.
The play is enjoyed as a vehicle for meaty female roles — fierce Amanda and shy, "crippled" daughter Laura (here, Celia Keenan-Bolger). Look for Tony award nominations for both.
As compelling as their performances are, the real stars of this production, directed by John Tiffany, might just be Bob Crowley (sets and costumes) and Natasha Katz (lighting design). Look for nominations here too. Together they have created the isolated world of a fading southern beauty hanging on to to memories of her youth — an island floating on a lake of reflection.
The story is told from Tom’s point of view. Zachary Quinto steps into this role with authority and truth be told, the persona of Williams himself. It really s his tale to tell and Quinto makes us understand both the writer’s love and loathing for his mother and sister (at risk of repeating myself, it’s a nomination-worthy performance). He addresses the audiences directly at beginning and end to frame the memories surrounding one particular night when Tom brings a friend to dinner at the family’s apartment.
The "gentleman caller" (Brian J. Smith) turns out to be a boy who had been kind to Laura in high school (and played here as a happy-go-lucky guy not as sensitive to Laura as we have come to expect.) He wins her confidence and she entrusts him with a piece of her glass menagerie– a collection of glass figurines that provide the only beauty or happiness in the bleak life of a girl so isolated that she fades into the folds of a sofa without notice (with the help of Crowley and Katz). The menagerie itself is represented by one spotlighted crystal piece and hundreds of lights of point reflected in a pool below.
The pool is fascinating — quietly undetectable until it reflects an upside-down image of the reality taking place above it. This alter-reality just below the surface beckons to Tom, who leans over the jagged edges of his world in thoughts of escape. It’s exquisite staging. You might want to consider a mezzanine seat for this show to get the full effect.
The barebones staging and props balance the impact of the special effects. One scene in particular, where Amanda and Laura flip a non-existent tablecloth, brings home the idea of "what’s real?"
This Glass Menagerie has great performances, but the visionary staging gives lots of room for reflection on the play’s themes.
The Glass Menagerie has been extended through Feb. 23 at the Booth theatre, 222 West 45th St., NYC. For tickets and information: http://www.broadway.com.
Note: Ladies, don’t plan on using the restroom at this theater. Half the line won’t get through before curtain.