BY NAVEEN KUMAR
Director John Tiffany’s stylish and superbly acted revival
of The Glass Menagerie opened on
Broadway last week at the Booth Theatre. Arriving on Broadway after a
critically acclaimed run at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, the
production is at once faithful to Tennessee Williams’ specific ideas about how
the play ought to be performed, and unmistakably revelatory.
The 1944 work that launched Williams’ career is a not so
thinly veiled autobiographical account with parallels to his own family life,
which the writer deems a ‘memory play.’ Tom (played here by Zachary Quinto)
acts as narrator, looking back on memories of his somewhat
delusional and heartily overbearing mother Amanda (Cherry Jones), and
physically impaired, isolated sister Laura (Celia Keenan-Bolger).
Cooped up together in a middle-class tenement of
St. Louis during the height of the Great Depression, the Wingfield family
inches by on Tom’s warehouse salary, their father having left when the children
were young. Amanda’s nostalgia for her glory days as a Southern belle blends
with her aspirations for her daughter Laura, so painfully shy that her
prospects for finding either a job or a husband to support her seem dire.
In his production notes for the play, Williams writes:
“Expressionism and all other unconventional techniques in drama have only one
valid aim, and that is a closer approach to truth.” Tiffany’s use of stylized
movement and other carefully conceived ‘unconventional’ elements is both imaginative
and precise. Taken together, the overall effect is an evocation of memories so
far removed and yet immediate that the play feels like a vivid dream—with
emotional truth never far from the surface.
With a softly lilting Southern cadence, Quinto brings out
the poetry in Williams’ language to captivating effect. As a son (and grown
man) looking back on loved ones he left behind and alternately reliving his
past, Quinto registers a rich spectrum of regret, restlessness, filial
affection, and an unspoken, deeply disguised longing. A frustrated poet widely accepted as a stand-in for Williams, Tom's buried desire is often interpreted as homosexual, as it is quite subtly here.
With her performance as Amanda, Ms. Jones demonstrates why
she is rightfully among the most celebrated stage actors of her (or really,
anyone’s) generation. By turns tender and smothering, pragmatic and delusional,
and garrulous without turning shrill—her Amanda quite viscerally inspires the
same complex gambit of emotions with which anyone who has a mother is familiar.
Amanda’s assessment of her daughter, that “still water runs
deep,” may never have seemed more true. Ms. Keenan-Bolger’s careful, heartfelt
performance as Laura hints at the elaborate emotional turmoil swirling
underneath her surface stillness. It’s a metaphor that encompasses Tiffany’s
production, itself set on a small collection of rooms surrounded by dark waters—a
Brian J. Smith is likewise excellent as Jim, the long
awaited Gentleman Caller. In the hands of Smith and Keenan-Bolger, the
oft-rehearsed courtship between Jim and Laura feels fresh and alive, with an
enchanting chemistry that makes the play’s conclusion that much more moving.
Joining Tiffany is the creative team with whom he also
collaborated on the Tony Award winning musical Once (with many taking home individual awards), including movement
director Steven Hoggett, designers Natasha Katz (lighting), Clive Goodwin
(sound), and Bob Crowley (scenic and costume). Together with a supremely
talented company, they deliver a haunting and extraordinary revival that’s sure
to become a benchmark for future productions.
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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: michael j. lutch)