In 1945 we were introduced to Tennessee Williams whose The Glass Menagerie settled in at the Playhouse on Broadway for a run of 563 performances. It brought a new generation of theatre goers to rejoice in the iconic performance of Laurette Taylor, and lifted Williams into the pantheon of great American playwrights.
In 1965, and in just about every decade since, the play’s been revived so this current production is the sixth to reach us, which speaks to its universal appeal, to its timeless virtues. For young playgoers it’s an opportunity to discover a master. For people who know the material, it was a question of “what can they bring to it that’s new, different, but faithful to the author’s intentions?”
The answer to that is: “just about everything.” John Tiffany (who won a Tony last season for staging Once, the musical), working with Bob Crowley on movement, and a brilliant ensemble of four actors, has with his designers created a world of memory, which means the production is fragmented and wispy and suggestive, in no way realistic. Fire escapes seem to climb to the sky, living rooms have no walls, people emerge from inside a sofa and float down invisible stairs when they aren’t needed. Light music by Nico Muhly floats in and out to allow scenes to fade out. It is after all, a “memory play” and the author, in the form of a narrator, tells us: ” I have tricks up my sleeve, but I am the opposite of a magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion. It is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic. In memory everything seems to happen to music.”
Mr. Tiffany has taken all that to heart. He’s taken the author’s words and made them the basis of his production concept. The result is magical; surprising and inventive. Of course to keep the promise of the opening moments, he needs four actors who are working smoothly together and in Cherry Jones, Zachary Quinto, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Brian J. Smith he has himself the equivalent of the Juilliard String Quartet. All four have takes on their characters that are highly original and arresting.
Cherry Jones, as Amanda, the mother of Laura and Tom Wingfield, has chosen to make her signature morning call “Rise and Shine!” the theme of her life. Nothing can destroy her, but she lets us know early on she is capable of feeling great pain but incapable of succumbing to it. When her painfully shy daughter Laura explains how frightened she is by the secretarial school her mother has enrolled her in, Amanda brushes that aside and tries to give Laura the confidence she so desperately lacks. When circumstances threaten her plans, she finds the strength to fight back with tornado like force. When in her eyes her son Tom fails to deliver on a promise he made, she attacks like a lioness whose cub has been threatened. Cherry Jones is a national treasure and if you were lucky enough to see her play Catherine Sloper in The Heiress and Sister Aloysius in Doubt you will understand the enormous range this brilliant actress has at her command. I don’t know her but I’m told she’s even a joy to work with, so there you have it — the complete package, and aren’t we lucky to be around when she’s working?
Her supporting cast is right up there with her. Zachary Quinto, who narrates as Tom, comes to us from “American Horror Story” on the small screen. He won a Theatre World Award for his work in Angels in America at the Signature off Broadway. He is a revelation as Tom, giving him a new twist as he fights the demons within him to the point where he must leave the life he’s living. Caged at home with a crippled sister he loves but cannot help, diminished by a mother who wants to control him, he finally “falls in love with long distance”, as did his father who has been gone for years.
Celia Keenan-Bolger is Laura, who has always been played as a wistful waif, here brings more severe mental illness to the role. Julie Haydon played her first on Broadway and Jane Wyman brought wide-eyed innocence to her in the film version, which was badly miscast with star names. Keenan-Bolger, who has the fewest number of lines, might seem to fade into the background in the early scenes, but in her big moment when she is visited by her first and only ‘gentleman caller’ later in the play, she emerges as a young lady of deep feeling which she simply cannot express. Her disappointment in the failure of this connection dooms her to a tragic post-curtain life, leaving Tom with a life long guilt he will never be able to assuage.
Brian J. Smith is the most original ‘gentleman caller’ I’ve seen. His scene with Tom shows us just how loose Tom can be when relaxing with someone with whom he feels rapport, and later when Smith and Keenan-Bolger are left on their own together, the play glows with great tenderness. It is crystal clear when Laura responds so to this man, and when she learns the relationship will have no future, her collapse is kinetic and we reel from it.
It’s unusual for three plays in one week to all resonate with the same dysfunctional family syndrome. The Old Friends, The Glass Menagerie and Jericho (which I’ll discuss next week) all involve families in different parts of the country, with different values and different accents, all sharing the divisions that separate loved ones, all spreading guilt like warm butter on toast. You may not know these Wingfields in Menagerie but you will empathize with them, and feel for them, for they are beautifully written and artfully played by a cast of champions.
Glass Menagerie is onstage until Feb 23, 2014 at the Booth Theatre, 222 W 45th St, NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.
He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.