The Glass Menagerie
There is no cabinet filled with small glass animals in John Tiffany’s rethinking of "The Glass Menagerie" at the American Repertory Theater; instead there is one piece - the unicorn that proves so crucial to the plot. That may sound strange; after all, Tennessee Williams’ famous "memory play" is rooted in a theatrical naturalism that requires that the Depression-era St. Louis apartment that Amanda Wingfield shares with her son Tom and daughter Laura to be claustrophobic and very real.
But on the Loeb Stage, where this production continues through March 17, less is more: on a platform sit a few pieces of Victorian living room furniture, a gramophone, a dining room table and a screen, dwarfed by a surreal fire escape that reaches up to the heavens like an Escher drawing. Oh, yes, then there’s the black, shiny liquid that fills the stage like a moat and reflects the action. Even the crescent moon is wittily suggested - sitting on the horizon, it is half-real and half-reflection - another illusion.
Setting this drama in such an abstract world (the brilliant designs are by Bob Crowley) is the first indication that this isn’t going to be your grandparents’ "The Glass Menagerie." Not that this is a radical interpretation -- rather it is one true to Williams’ concept. "Expressionism and all other unconventional techniques in drama have only one valid aim, and that is a closer approach to the truth," he wrote in the play’s forward. Magical realism meets Clifford Odets.
What Tiffany does so well here is inform the play with the economic realities that drive the story. Amanda is a single mother with two children, one disabled, living from paycheck-to-paycheck - her son’s paycheck. Her crisis is that she knows Tom wants to escape (like his father before him), but what of Laura? Seriously introverted, she’s escaped into her own world defined by her glass menagerie and a set of old phonograph records that her father left behind. Pretty, if plain, she has let her slight limp overwhelm her. Amanda’s efforts to put her out in the world - including business school - have come to naught. Now she turns to Tom to make the impossible happen: bring home a young man that will be so infatuated by his sister that he will marry her. But Tom only wants to join the Merchant Marine and get as far away from Amanda, the shoe factory he hates and the St. Louis slum as he can. Once he does, though, he can’t escape his memories.
Viewed through this prism, Tiffany offers a kinder, gentler Amanda in the person of Cherry Jones. Her interpretation has that truthfulness Williams seeks: she drives her children like a shrill drill sergeant, but does so out of love and necessity. Unlike other Amandas I’ve seen, Jones brings nuance to the role, blurring the lines between anxiety for her present situation and a headstrong optimism for the future. Like many of Williams’ heroines, she lives in the past - the vanished world of Southern gentility. In lesser hands, she can seem like a cliché; but Jones imbues her with spunk and abundant charm. Jones’ Amanda may be worn, but not defeated; and when she emerges dressed in an ancient party dress, there’s a magical glimpse of the woman she once was: flirty, engaging, and in command. She doesn’t even miss a beat when the electricity is turned off.
That event sets up the play’s crucial scene in which Tom’s sister Laura and Jim, the "Gentleman Caller" Tom has brought to dinner, have a candlelit conversation in the living room. Tom has brought Jim to dinner in hopes to placate Amanda’s wishes; but, having had a crush on Jim in high school, she hides from him. Back then, he was a hotshot; today, like Tom, he works in the shoe factory - his promise diminished by his own big-headedness, bad luck and, again, the Depression. But unlike Tom, Jim epitomizes a can-do spirit as he connects with Laura. He has a future, and he attempts to help Laura out of her self-imposed prison by giving her a pep talk.
That it is augmented with a kiss makes the moment all the more resonant, especially in lieu of what follows. The final moments explode with the tension that has been building throughout; yet what Tiffany does remarkably well is suggest the tender bonds that have held Amanda and Tom together. When they dance - a sweet, sad waltz courtesy of Nico Muhly - there’s a truce in their on-going war. It’s almost as if things could work out.
They don’t, which, of course, ends the play on a poignant note; but Tiffany doesn’t offer the usual stage tableaux of Laura blowing out the candles. This is Tom’s play - his memory - and it is his moment. Alone on the stage, Zachary Quinto caps a deeply felt performance as if finally coming to terms with his past. It makes the play less sentimental, more honest. If in writing the play Williams dealt with his guilt of forsaking his sister in real life, then Tiffany’s staging of the final scene shows that he was able to move on through his art. (If he hadn’t left, there would not have been this play and the dozen that followed.) It isn’t so much tragic as bittersweet.
This Tom isn’t so much angry as frustrated to distraction; he is torn between duty and his dreams, not so much out of selfishness, but survival in the direst of times. Quinto conveys Tom’s self-hatred, but also his self-awareness - it proves to be his strength; and in conveying Tom’s dilemma, and this actor, best-known from his television and film work, captures those contradictions with remarkable nuance.
Celia Keenan-Bolger’s childlike Laura is almost feral in her behavior - she darts about the stage like a frightened cat. This is the play’s most difficult role - a combination of odd physical tics coupled with a personality retreating into itself. It isn’t until her long scene with Jim that she blossoms, if only briefly. Her quirky behavior and self-involvement suggest behavioral issues that today would be treated medically; her tragedy may simply be that she was born in the wrong time.
In the role Keenan-Bolger walks the fine line between fragile vulnerability and self-absorption with care. Her scene with Jim is beautifully played, partly because she comes out of her shell so convincingly, but also because Brian J. Smith (as Jim) coaxes her with such gentleness. Smith has a charismatic presence, and is given the task of presenting the play’s message, which, though corny, touches Laura (and the audience) with its sincerity. What he does best is show how his character gets caught in the moment - his impulsive kiss is exquisitely staged, as his self-conscious retreat from it.
Tiffany stages this production in ’sotto’ voice; so much so that I wondered how well it played in the back of the house. The opening night audience, though, was rapt, as if seeing this classic for the first time. This may be because this production manages to be specific to its time and place; but it’s also timeless - as pertinent today as it was when it premiered more than 60 years ago. When each of the Wingfields steps to the front of the stage to stare out into the void, you shudder; not so much because you know how the story ends, but rather because it can end no other way.
"The Glass Menagerie" continues through Mar. 17, 2013 at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA. For more information, visit the American Repertory Theater website.