Theatregoers, consider yourself warned. Long after exiting the Booth Theatre, where the achingly beautiful revival of The Glass Menagerie is currently in performances, this play will stay with you. John Tiffany’s movingly acted and artistically staged production will continue to haunt your memory.
That might be considered appropriate for The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams’ 1944 “memory play” about an unhappy family trapped within the confinements of their own lives. Featuring a stunningly talented cast and staged in a beautifully rendered set that evokes the isolation and desperation of the characters, this production is an almost frighteningly powerful work that will remain with the audience long after the curtain falls.
Williams’ 1944 drama follows the Wingfield family in St. Louis, at the height of the Great Depression. Amanda, a wife and mother abandoned by her husband, is financially supported by her son Tom, an aspiring poet trapped in a dead-end warehouse job, and desperate to find a husband for her younger daughter Laura, a painfully shy young woman who walks with a limp.
Cherry Jones plays Amanda, giving a wonderfully textured performance of such depth and sympathy that, even at her most grating moments, one can’t help but root for her. Tom is performed by Zachary Quinto, who beautifully depicts his character’s rage and desperation and how he simultaneously loves and loathes his family. His frail younger sister Laura is played by Celia Keenan-Bolger in a performance of such clarity and confidence that often when she was onstage, I couldn’t look at anyone else – even when she was silent.
This cast functions seamlessly as a family, which can be both a blessing and a curse in a Williams play. Amanda dominates her family, telling everyone what to do and how to do it, but even when she frustrates and infuriates her son, it is clear she is attempting to provide her children with a better life than the one she has. She finds comfort in imagining a better future or dreaming of her own apparently idyllic past as a Southern belle, frequently reminding her children that in one day she had 17 gentleman callers.
Jones, a two-time Tony winner, is a formidable presence onstage, but Quinto is clearly her equal. He holds his own when the two characters face off, and he also builds a rapport with her that is believable and even comforting in a play cloaked with so much despair. It is clear he both despises and admires his mother, and, while loathing himself for his own secrets, he recognizes that she is a woman alone in a world that isn’t kind to women who are alone.
One of Amanda’s attempts to provide for her daughter is to have Tom bring a friend from work home for dinner, thus hopefully providing Laura with one of the fabled Gentlemen Callers. This caller, named Jim, is performed in a warm and charismatic performance by Brian J. Smith, is a man long past his high school glory days and struggling to live in his own present-day life. Smith and Keenan-Bolger share a sweet chemistry together, and their scene alone is powerfully moving and beautifully staged. I will admit, without any shame, that it moved me to tears.
Along with the chemistry and talent of the quartet onstage, The Glass Menagerie is also an achievement of artistic triumph. Bob Crowley’s set places the apartment onstage, surrounded by a pool of dark water that lights up between scenes, effectively marooning the Wingfields alone on their island of unhappiness. None of them walk offstage during the production; instead they exit through the floors, again depicting their isolation. Natasha Katz’s lighting further enhaces the ghostly atmosphere of the memories, along with Clive Goodwin’s sound and Nico Muhly’s music. Steven Hogget’s movement direction physically embodies the animal-like feeling of being trapped in a cage, especially when the family members stride to the edge of the stage and stop, unable to look down into the water and see their own reflections.
While almost 70 years have passed since The Glass Menagerie was first performed, but the play’s impact is timeless. Gender roles in this country continue to be confused with, and often, forced into traditional norms that result in unhappiness. When Amanda admonishes Laura for dropping out of secretarial school, saying, “I know what happens to unmarried women who aren’t prepared to have a position in life,” my first instinct was to roll my eyes, before I reminded myself when this play was written. And as a 21st century feminist, I often feel more sympathy for women than men for being trapped in their roles in life and society; but Quinto’s understated, anguished performance as Tom evoked just as much sympathy from me as Amanda and Laura’s did.
There is so much more I could say about The Glass Menagerie, but I don’t want to spoil some of the beautiful surprises artfully worked into this production. Tom bitterly, and affectionately, describes his mother as always looking and waiting for “the long-delayed, but always expected something that we live for.” For theatregoers looking for a moving and beautiful night at the theater, this play might be just that.