The luminous physical beauty of the production staged by the American Repertory Theater, coupled with carefully crafted performances by its performers, makes this a Glass Menagerie to be cherished.
The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. Directed by John Tiffany. Staged by the American Repertory Theater. At the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, MA, through March 17.
By Iris Fanger
An autobiographical drama ripped from the memory of playwright Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie is one of the towering monuments of twentieth-century, American theater. The guilt-drenched eternity of the play, filled with longing and excuses, has resonated through the collective conscience of audiences since December 1944, when it opened in Chicago, followed by its triumphant March 1945 premiere in New York.
Alas, too often the simplicity of the play’s structure, and the accessibility of dramatist’s poetic language, have led to countless productions to dilute Williams’s achievement by letting the script do all the work. Thus the luminous physical beauty of the production currently on the boards at American Repertory Theater, coupled with carefully crafted performances by the actors, is all the more to be cherished.
Under the perceptive direction of John Tiffany, aided by movement specialist Steven Hoggett, the play unfolds in an alternating sequence of the scenes as written connected by mime interludes that serve to plunge us deeper into the hidden recesses of the psyche of each member of the troubled Wingfield family: Tom, the narrator and stand-in for the playwright; Laura, his fragile, damaged little sister, based on the tragic life of Williams’s sister, Rose; and Amanda, their mother, an at times strident general in the battle against the adversities that beset her family on every side. The time-frame of the economic depression of the 1930s only makes Amanda’s impotent strivings all the more poignant.
Natasha Katz, the lighting designer, bathes the faces of the characters in continual candlelight, illuminating the darkness of the black void that surrounds them. Designer Bob Crowley has put the apartment’s parlor and dining room on platforms, so it seems to float in space as if set loose from reality. Its only connection to the world is a scaffolding-like fire escape that towers up beyond the height of the proscenium—a tenement version of the stairway to heaven, far beyond human reach.
The one person who intrudes from the outside is the famous Gentleman Caller, the promised white knight with problems of his own who come to rescue Laura, if only in Amanda’s desperate imagination. He’s a tangential figure but one whose home-grown and familiar traits are perfectly nailed by Williams: he is the high school hero who fails to fulfill his promise after graduation.
The star of the A.R.T. staging is clearly Cherry Jones as the antic Amanda, a manic-depressive who veers from giddy dreams of what might be possible to a wretched understanding of meagre circumstances that fall far below her girlhood aspirations. However, the other members of the cast are no less memorable. Zachary Quinto as Tom manages to retain our sympathies, even though we understand that he must abandon his family to save himself. Brian J. Smith delivers a jovial, upbeat portrayal of The Gentleman Caller, a self-proclaimed go-getter who is surprisingly sensitive to the reclusive Laura.
However, it’s the gifted, young actress Celia Keenan-Bolger, as Laura, who creates an impression that remains in the mind’s eye long after the candles are snuffed out at the play’s ending. Keenan-Bolger who was nominated for a Tony (among other awards) for her role as the madcap Molly (who grows up to become Wendy’s mother) in last season’s Broadway production of Peter and The Starcatcher (which I was lucky enough to catch) totally transforms herself into the frightened girl-child. She limps on a turned-in foot, but it’s the actress’s rigid posture (a prescient symbol of the straight jacket ahead for Rose?), that captures Laura’s self-withdrawal from responsibility and relationships, not just the character’s conflicts with her mother and brother.
At the end of Act I, Amanda accuses Tom of ignoring that “the future becomes the present, the present the past, and the past turns into everlasting regret. . .” an eerie prequel to Mary Tyrone’s question, “The past is the present, isn’t it?” from another great, American drama of autobiographical atonement, Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill. These are stark statements about lives unlived that continue to be relevant, a vision brought to powerful fruition by A.R.T’s team of contemporary theater artists in collaboration with the genius of the playwright Tennessee Williams.
Note: An important archive of papers, correspondence, prompt scripts, and other materials by Tennessee Williams are held at Harvard University’s Theatre Collection, a gift of the playwright and later from his estate, as well as other donors.