review: the glass menagerie

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The Glass Menagerie

By Tennessee Williams
Directed by John Tiffany
Featuring Cherry Jones, Zachary Quinton, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Brian J. Smith
Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street
September 26, 2013 (opening) — February 23, 2014
production web site

(L-R) Zachary Quinto, Cherry Jones, Brian J. Smith, Celia Keenan-Bolger (image by Michael J. Lutch)
(L-R) Zachary Quinto, Cherry Jones, Brian J. Smith, Celia Keenan-Bolger (image by Michael J. Lutch)

There a quiet calm space in which The Glass Menagerie lives in our collective heart. The challenge of achieving the delicate balance required in the successful assembly of the play’s simple components can prove elusive in many productions. I have seen prior productions ranging from a delightful 2008 Chicago storefront treatment to a surprising and moving 2004 Sally Field-helmed production in a Kennedy Center festival to a highly conceptualized and emotionally challenged 2010 Long Wharf outing at Roundabout — typing typing typing and action behind scrims — to a 2011 Georgetown University treatment at Arena Stage that missed the mark with several casting choices yet provided some masterful projection design ideas. It is difficult to match conception and performance, set and sensibility, in the evocation of Tennessee Williams‘ misty and rooted story of the economically challenged and culturally floundering Wingfield family in 1930s St. Louis. And for my money, the current Broadway revival, with a few very small design quibbles, hits every single dramatic note.

Tom Wingfield’s (Zacharcy Quinto) memories of mother Amanda (Cherry Jones), sister Laura (Celia Kennan-Bolger), Laura’s Gentleman Caller (Brian J. Smith) and events that take place over several days in a St. Louis apartment in the late 1930s are delivered in this calm cosmos, where characters emerge from within and around furniture and Tom himself stumbles backwards into his memory, into the storytelling.  Everyone is damaged in some way — Tom yearns to leave town and his dead-end job in a warehouse; mother Amanda makes do with too little, lives in the past, yearns for a future for her children; Laura is afraid of the world outside her assembly of glass animal figures, represented in this production by a single glass unicorn.  Into this world sweeps a work colleague of Tom’s, Jim the Gentleman Caller, once a classmate of Laura’s, and who has commitments unknown to the Wingfield family clan and some damage of his own.

Each actor finds a pure clear voice for his or her character, establishing a true sense of balanced ensemble. Zachary Quinto is believably gentle with Laura, angry yet loving with Amanda, and frustrated with his work and private life. Cherry Jones crafts a believably tenacious mama using whatever strengths she has (charm for telephone sales, ancient debutant wiles to entertain at dinner) to protect her clan. Celia Keenan-Bolger creates a shy Laura who knows her own strengths and weakness, reacting not out of panic at the pressure to socialize with an surprise visitor but self knowledge. Her Laura and Smith’s Gentleman Caller work together in their long post dinner living room scene in the dark as delightful equals finding a balance — we feel sorry for the Gentleman Caller rather than Laura at the conclusion of this scene when he reveals his own private life complications to the family.

Director John Tiffany has a delicate hand with most elements of the story, allowing each character his or her time on stage, in the limelight, speaking plainly, with no foofaraw. Movement designer Steven Hoggett‘s bio is full of musicals from Once to Peter and the Starcatcher, and these childish frames create a bit of fussiness around the edges of this production — miming setting a table and eating, for example — that is otherwise exquisitely spare. The set design by Bob Crawley is more consistently successful — it frames rather than roots, suggests rather than illustrates, with stairs that edge the memory apartment used as a fire escape entry point, and the mast of a ship Tom will soon join as crew member. Wooden platforms under the dining and living room playing areas float above a black reflective liquid pool — reflective and rooted at the same time. Crawley’s costume designs are a little less successful on these characters — ill-fitting in some cases (especially Amanda’s old debutante gown), and too spare in others (especially Laura’s dinner ensemble).

The Glass Menagerie holds a story as small as a momentary recollection and as large as a starfield of dreams. And this production gives us both.

© Martha Wade Steketee (October 31, 2013)

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