The Glass Menagerie
January 18 2014
I have slept through many a professional production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, usually because tiresome directors and self-indulgent actors have tried to “make a point” or “do something with it” and, in that process, have robbed Williams’ self-proclaimed memory play of its lyrical potential, its universality or its inherent character driven power.
Equally, when the New York critics almost universally wax lyrical about a production, there is often, but not always, cause for concern, or, if not concern, hesitation. So the prospect of the current Broadway revival of Williams’ masterpiece, playing at the Booth Theatre, was both trepidatious and appealing.
But…on entering the Booth, Bob Crowley’s extraordinary and quite beautifully evocative set immediately established the tone: immersive captivation. The home of the central characters was split into two sections, each floating on water, so that reflections and mirror images were a constant, unifying presence. Seeing what is and what you think is there, and, at the same time, not seeing what is there.
A dizzying staircase of external fire escapes ascended to the heavens, at once cementing the location as Urban America (St Louis to be precise) and reflecting both the heights the drama will ascend and the notion of the collection of glass animals that will effectively overshadow the life of one of the central characters.
Combined with Natasha Katz’ astonishing lighting, the sound design provided by Clive Goodwin and Nico Muhly’s poignant, haunting and precisely right music, the Crowley vision for the Wingfield family is stunning: ghostly, pungent with dissatisfaction and deceit and alive with possibility.
Into this precise and magical world enter four quite incredible performers, and within minutes, it is clear that this is one of the greatest performances of a Williams play that anyone is likely to see in this century and hard to believe that an earlier production could match it for detail, intensity, focus and innovation. John Tiffany’s lustrous illumination of the text, his clarity of story telling and the deft and wondrous use of device, style and clever effects produces one of the most entertaining, important and dynamically charged evenings one can ever expect to spend in a theatre. He is a masterful genius.
And no slouch when it comes to casting.
There are almost no words to adequately convey the complexity, the assured desperation, the frantically tenuous hold on reality, the dangerous dissent into past or imagined glory, the humour and the brave undignified horror that the glorious Cherry Jones brings to the role of Amanda, the mother of the two siblings who are differently crushed by her deluded ramblings. Every single thing Jones does is inspiring, perfectly done and completely thought through.
Her wild appearance in her old tattered cotillion dress; her rapturous and unhinged recollections about jonquils; her sly attempts to induce the Gentleman Caller to get her daughter drunk; her shattering realisation of the hopeless future when said Gentleman Caller reveals he is to be married – all pitch perfect in every way. Jones embodies the central plank of Tiffany’s approach – her portrayal of Amanda is the remembered version, it’s not remotely realistic, it’s fantastical, bizarre and overwhelming, just as Tom, the Narrator, would remember her. Because that is what suits him. And yet, despite that, there is truth in every reflection of what Jones does. It is an astonishing performance.
Zachary Quinto is exactly right as her son, Tom, who wants to escape the confines of the family tragedy and who, selfishly, eventually does just that, only to discover that his life will forever be haunted by the horror he has bestowed upon his crippled sister Laura. He gets many laughs and manages to be thoroughly likeable, even though Tom is difficult to love. His scenes with Jones are delicious in every way.
And unusually, and perhaps unexpectedly, he never insinuates that Tom is gay, something many recent productions have insisted upon. But just as the recent Broadway revival of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof established that a gay subplot was not necessary for the Williams drama to function effectively, so Tiffany proves here. Quinto is just desperate to get out of the house, not the closet. And quite right too.
As the crippled Laura, the girl who escapes into her world of small glass animals because the pressures and demands of the real world are too great for her simplistic and shy conception of life, Celia Keenan-Bolger is utterly triumphant. She is fantastically fragile, but totally believable and not desperate for sympathy. The wonder in her eyes when she surveys her glittering collection of animals is mesmerising; and she beautifully conveys the possibility of release in her wonderful scene with the Gentleman Caller, especially the moment immediately before the glass unicorn is broken, when she releases herself to go with him as they dance. The rapture and surrender in her eyes, her whole body, is miraculous to behold. Her regression into desperate clinging to her mother once the truth is out is profoundly affecting.
In perhaps the most difficult role, Brian J Smith is unrelentingly normal and with pin-prick precision makes the most of every second as the Gentleman Caller, in a refreshingly honest and commonplace way. Yes, he is gorgeous; yes, he breaks Laura’s heart; but he is not vicious or deliberate – he is simply trapped by the machinations of mother and son.
Smith and Keenan-Bolger share the scene of the evening, for despite all the perfection that both Jones and Quinto bring to their roles, Tiffany’s production turns on the encounter between the shy Laura and the manly, desirable husband-in-waiting – and it is thrilling and tragic in every way. It is also the only section of the play to be approached in a realistic way, so its contrapuntal effect with the more excessive and stylistic aspects of other scenes is electric and quite quite remarkable.
And when Jones brings her mercurial, mystical and misguided Amanda into the scene, the effect is staggeringly powerful: her face and eyes when Smith mentions his betrothed Betty comprise one of the most powerful and haunting images from the theatre I have ever experienced.
Who knew Tennessee Williams could be so modern, so fresh, so pertinent, so profound, so disturbing, so magical? John Tiffany.
Sell limbs, organs, children, gold, whatever – but see this production if you value great dramatic theatrical work. It’s a once in a lifetime reimagining of a classic piece of theatrical writing.