Sam Gold’s ill-conceived staging at Broadway’s Belasco strips Williams’ classic of lyricism and more.
By: Patrick Christiano
Near the start of The Glass Menagerie Joe Mantello, as the story’s narrator Tom Wingfield, informs the audience, with the stage lights fully on, that what is to follow is a memory play and nothing is realistic, indicating his bare surroundings to emphasis the point. Apparently, this is the concept Sam Gold intended for his audacious deconstruction of William’s classic 1944 breakthrough play. Nothing is authentic and the result, despite Sally Field’s gallant performance, is an unconvincing evening that fails to engage with emotional impact.
Working on a naked stage with only one long table, a few chairs, a minimum of props, and limited lighting, Gold further strips Williams’ masterpiece of every period detail so carefully specified in his text. The actors dispense with southern accents and wear modern day clothing in a lumbering production that feels barren, without a hint of charm or Williams’s characteristic grace.
The director’s choice to cast a disabled actress with muscular dystrophy, the lovely and brave Madison Ferris in a wheelchair, as the excruciatingly shy Laura, who is described in the play as walking with a limp, contradicts the text by putting the emphasis on her physical defect. When not in the wheelchair or sitting on the floor, Ferris walks on her hands and feet by thrusting her buttocks high into the air. This is almost painful to watch, which I guess is what Gold intended, to use a broad stroke to shed light on the emotionally crippled aspect of Laura’s nature. Broad strokes, however, do not serve Williams, and further undercut the touching complexities of Williams’ writing. Laura’s acute anxiety turns her into a tragic figure, not her physical deformity.
Famous directors of late have taken to imposing extreme choices onto plays in a clear attempt to create a staging that deconstructs the playwright’s original intention. This is the opposite of his function and when done feels ego driven. The effect more often disengages the audience from the emotional through line of the play by distancing us from the conflicts inherent in the action. The director’s task is to illuminate the text, not to reconceive what is already on the page.
Gold further neglects to guide his actors with caution allowing Sally Field to rush many of her speeches without nuance, depth, or struggle. And on several occasions, he permits her to hunch over oppressively as she scolds her children instead of standing confidently in her convictions by attempting to shake them into an awareness of their shared plight. In these moments, she turns into an overbearing old hag as opposed to a caring mother at her wits end. Mr. Mantello’s performance, under Gold’s direction, (let’s not even go into the age factor) is overly mannered, punctuated by an excessive shaking of his head and physical gestures. And as the gentlemen caller Jim O’Connor, Finn Wittrock’s earnest efforts are obvious and broad turning the character into a blustery parody played for laughs like much of the director’s impractical approach.
Mr. Gold, who won a Tony award for his wonderful direction of the Tony award winning musical Fun Home, which moved to Broadway from the Public, has established a well-deserved and distinguished reputation in the theater. His meddling here, however, turns the playwright’s dreamlike-meditation into an unrelenting nightmare. The evening comes across as a bare bones dress rehearsal rather than a fully realized staging of the Williams classic.
The Glass Menagerie ***
111 West 44 Street
Runnng Time 2 Hours, 5 Minutes
Opening Night March 9, 2017
Photo: Julieta Cervantes