The Glass Menagerie is a play that has touched me in a tender place for a long time. I grew up with this Tennessee Williams masterpiece, first seeing it performed when I was in high school. As theater trends were moving increasingly towards the Pinteresque (characters at the mercy of each other, relentlessly brutal struggles for domination and submission,) The Glass Menagerie does not take us into fierce confrontation. It is rather a jewel box of heartbreaking awkwardness set in a family hermetically sealed in its dysfunction. A family that looks and sounds terrifyingly close to Tom Williams’ own.
American Repertory Theater’s new production of TGM is so well done that it is my all time favorite. As the play begins Tom tells the audience, “this play is memory.” Director John Tiffany holds fast to that overarching theme of the dreamlike nature of memory and the way the past continues to haunt us, to inhabit our thoughts. Tiffany’s staging offers a glimpse into the Wingfield’s tenement home but this is not a play about the gritty realism of life being lived in the 30s. (Williams spoke about his disinterest in writing “the straight realistic play with its genuine Frigidaire and authentic ice-cubes.”) The set, two hexagonal platforms which Tiffany describes as a “hydrocarbon molecule”, sits atop a reflective floor that feels like water. Or like open space. The Wingfield family is afloat. Adrift. Alone.
In Tiffany’s words:
I feel connected to what Tenesse Williams writes…because it’s about fragility and it’s about people. What he’s trying to say is that the world should be a place where damaged people like these can live, and it’s a disaster that it isn’t. Because Williams was a damaged, fragile person himself, I find the way he writes about damaged people deeply moving.
Cherry Jones is luminous as Amanda, a woman who struggles between her dogged desire to be cheerfully optimistic and the perilousness of her current circumstances. Like many dealing with a painful present, she lives in the past as her only refuge from suffering. Zachary Quinto (you might know him as the “new” Spock in Star Trek) plays Tom, Celia Keenan-Bolger is Laura, and Brian J. Smith is the unforgettably named Gentleman Caller. Each has found the pivot point for their character. Together, as an ensemble, they are delicately tuned.
Rewiewing The Glass Menagerie in 1944, Claudia Cassidy wrote this in the Chicago Tribune:
Too many theatrical bubbles burst in the blowing, but `The Glass Menagerie’ holds in its shadowed fragility the stamina of success. This brand new play, which turned the Civic theater into a place of steadily increasing enchantment last night, is still fluid with change, but it is vividly written, and in the main superbly acted. Paradoxically, it is a dream in the dust and a tough little play that knows people and how they tick. Etched in the shadows of a man’s memory, it comes alive in theater terms of words, motion, lighting, and music. If it is your play, as it is mine, it reaches out tentacles, first tentative, then gripping and you are caught in its spell.
A timeless play. An unforgettable production. Another stunner from Diane Paulus‘ A.R.T.