Sam Gold, the innovative director who won a Tony for Fun Home, has cast Sally Field in a new Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie that doesn’t include a glass menagerie! And that’s among the least intrusive of Gold’s directorial choices, which theatergoers weaned on Williams must struggle to reconcile with the playwright’s beloved text.
The absence of a display on stage of the glass animal figurines that give the play its title reflects the minimalist set at the elegant Belasco Theater, home of the eighth retelling on Broadway of the Depression-era story of the Wingfield family – mother Amanda, son Tom, daughter Laura — and their visit by Jim O’Connor, whom Amanda calls a gentleman caller and sees as a savior for her daughter.
The play unfolds on a bare stage, with just a table and a few chairs, an old Victrola and, oddly, a neon sign that says “Paradise: Open.” – one of the dives that Tom frequents? (The glass unicorn is taken out of a box that presumably contains Laura’s whole collection when it’s time for Laura to show it to Jim.) There is no curtain and no backdrop; we can see the entire stage, with its grey concrete floor and black walls. Also visible, off to the side, is a metal cart for the play’s props. All of this can be justified as a more extreme version of what Williams did when this, his first hit play, went against the leaden realism of the day, exposing the theatrical artifice. In the play’s opening monologue, Tom introduces himself as both the narrator and one of the characters, and talks about the “memory play” we are about to see as “not realistic,” as “truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” Gold is opting for “truth” without the pleasant disguise.
More production photos at NewYorkTheater.me
All four members of the cast in this production can be said to stand out, in a way, but not because of the quality of their performances – which is to say, it is difficult to assess their performances in isolation from the effect of the production as a whole.
Tom is portrayed by Joe Mantello, who made his Broadway debut as a performer in 1993 in Angels in America, but soon switched to directing, responsible for shows as divergent as Wicked, Assassins and, most recently, The Humans. He is now 54 years old, with white hair, a middle-aged Italian-American man playing a character that Tennessee Williams created to represent himself (not even thinly disguised) as a young man. Born and bred in the South, Williams (whose real first name was Thomas) moved with his family to a tenement in St. Louis, the setting of The Glass Menagerie. Tom brings home Jim, a fellow from the warehouse where he works, who is supposed to be a former classmate of his and Laura’s in high school. But the actor, Finn Wittrock, is self-evidently two decades younger than Mantello. The disparity in their ages can be explained away by assuming that this Tom is the older man remembering the events of his youth, so therefore inserting himself into those events.
It is more difficult to adjust in a similar way to the casting of Madison Ferris, who is making both her Broadway and her professional acting debut as Laura. The actress, who has muscular dystrophy, uses a wheelchair. Unlike, say, the casting in Spring Awakening of Ali Stroker, who also uses a wheelchair, this is not just an example of inclusive hiring practices. Gold makes a sustained point of her disability; she is introduced to the audience when she crawls her way from the audience of the Belasco up the stairs to the stage, Amanda and Tom carrying up the wheelchair and helping her get back into it. Later, we watch as she crawls all the way upstage.
There is something admittedly refreshing for a Broadway audience to be confronted with an actor who is not pretending to be disabled; such a practice is overdue. Gold has told interviewers that his aim is for the audience to understand palpably the situation the family is in. But is this the situation the Wingfield family is in, as the playwright conceived it?
Let’s put aside the question of why Jim would ask Laura to sit on the floor with him, as the script demands, forcing her to maneuver uncomfortably out of her wheelchair. Let’s also overlook the awkward staging of the dance between Jim and Laura – they don’t get up from the floor, dancing only with their upper bodies. It would take either someone completely oblivious or an extraordinary gentleman to overcome the manners and mores of 1937 (or, let’s face it, today) in order to engage Laura in this way, but maybe Jim is just so oblivious or is just such a gentleman.
But what are we to make of Jim’s comment to Laura:
“You dropped out of school, you gave up an education because of a clump, which as far as I know was practically non-existent! A little physical defect is what you have. Hardly noticeable even! Magnified thousands of times by imagination!”
And, at a different moment, mother and daughter:
Amanda: Nonsense! Laura, I’ve told you never, never to use that word. Why, you’re not crippled, you just have a little defect—hardly noticeable, even.
In previous productions, Laura has a limp that is indeed hardly noticeable, which guides us into thinking that Laura’s primary problem is her pathological shyness – as Jim puts it, her imagination — exacerbated by a well-meaning, supportive but overbearing mother. (This reportedly reflects the actual situation of Williams’ sister Rose, at least as the playwright recalled it.) In this production, where the director makes sure that Laura’s “defect” is noticeable, both Jim and Amanda have to be lying. Again (although it’s a stretch), Jim may just be gallant. But for Amanda to make that observation suggests full-fledged delusion.
It is not the only moment that encourages this conclusion. In anticipation of Jim’s visit, Amanda changes from her regular day clothes to an outfit meant to enhance her Southern charm. In this production, costume designer Wojciech Dziedzic dresses her first in a dowdy green frock, and has her change into a frilly pink party gown such as an oversized 8-year-old would wear to her birthday party. This makes Amanda seem less like a Southern belle recollecting her prime and closer to Bette Davis’s psychotic in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.”
This is at odds with much of the rest of Sally Field’s performance, in which she is angry, bitter and no-nonsense. When she recalls the 17 gentleman callers of her youth, she is not immersing herself in the fantasy world of her genteel Southern upbringing, she is full of resentment for having chosen the wrong beau to marry, the long-absent father of her children. This is not the traditional interpretation of the role (although Cherry Jones three years ago and Judith Ivey seven years ago both played up Amanda’s strength rather than her high-strung frivolity.) In any case, it is an intriguing choice, which would have made more sense, and had more impact, were it not undermined by a director intent on changing everything up so radically.
In a different production, Finn Wittrock’s easy-going, boosterish Jim would align with the playwright’s text. But the director’s changes turn him into somebody so enlightened that he seems to herald from another era. And perhaps this Glass Menagerie is meant to be in another era – or no era. (Only Field is dressed in period clothing; Mantello in particular wears the sort of street clothes — jeans, t-shirt, sneakers — that he would wear at an initial read-through.)
It is possible that theatergoers who have never seen The Glass Menagerie before can still be moved by Williams’ words in Sam Gold’s version. But I have the disadvantage of having seen many previous productions, at least one that also attempted an avant-garde interpretation meant to better Williams: In the opening monologue of The Glass Menagerie at the Roundabout’s Off-Broadway theater in 2010, instead of talking to the audience, Tom was typing his words and reading them over to himself, presumably checking for typos. The process of writing the play shared center stage with the play itself, and Tom became Tennessee, reading it the way a copy editor would. It didn’t work for me. Just three years ago, I saw a far more straightforward and far more effective production of The Glass Menagerie, the one on Broadway with Cherry Jones, Zachary Quinto, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Brian J. Smith. The scene between Laura and Jim was so heartbreaking that it somehow made me see the play in a new light.
That is obviously what Sam Gold is trying to do, trying to make us see The Glass Menagerie in a new light — but perhaps trying too hard.
There is some irony, then, in the producers of this Glass Menagerie having chosen to decorate the outside of the Belasco with quotes from the original Broadway production – “Tennessee Williams is an incomparably beautiful writer,” Brooks Atkinson wrote in 1945 – as if we would need to be reminded.
The Glass Menagerie is on stage at the Belasco (111 West 44th Street, between Broadway and Sixth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10036) through July 2, 2017.
Tickets and details
The Glass Menagerie. Written by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Sam Gold. Scenic Design by Andrew Lieberman; Costume Design by Wojciech Dziedzic; Lighting Design by Adam Silverman; Sound Design by Bray Poor. Featuring Sally Field as Amanda, Joe Mantello as Tom, Madison Ferris as Laura, Finn Wittrock as Jim. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.