When it first premiered on Broadway nearly 70 years ago, Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, with its bold expressionism and robust lyricism, changed the landscape of American drama. As anyone who has taken a high school English course likely knows, Menagerie is a “memory play,” in which narrator, Tom Wingfield (a stand-in for Williams), wistfully recalls his domineering mother, Amanda (a faded Southern belle based on Williams’ mother, Edwina), and her obsession with finding a suitor, or “gentleman caller,” for his painfully shy and disabled sister, Laura (inspired by Williams’ mentally ill sister, Rose).
Having seen the Kennedy Center’s 2004 production of Menagerie with Sally Field, the 2005 Broadway production with Jessica Lange, and, most recently, the Roundabout’s Off-Broadway 2010 production with Judith Ivey, I was in no great rush to revisit Menagerie and thus approached this revival with ambivalence. However, after seeing—no, experiencing—this groundbreaking production, which premiered earlier this year at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the first words that spring to mind, courtesy of Williams’ tragic heroine, Blanche DuBois, is that “sometimes there’s God—so quickly.” Pulsating with a poetry of movement that is calibrated to the lyricism of Williams’ text, this remarkable production of Menagerie is less a revival and more a return to the original intent of its creator. Indeed, in the play’s production notes written in 1945, Williams pre-saged the arrival of “a new plastic theatre, which must take the place of the exhausted theatre of realistic conventions.”
No doubt, Williams would be delighted with the plasticity of this production, directed by John Tiffany (Once), who, along with set designer, Bob Crowley, have reimagined the cramped tenement apartment occupied by the Wingfields as an island comprised of two hexagonal platforms, surrounded by a pitch-black liquid lake. These platforms hold a few props, namely a deceptively common-looking couch (its magic will not be revealed here), a kitchen table, a dressing screen, and a small wooden box atop which rests a single glass unicorn, representing the glass animal collection of the play’s title, as well as a metaphor for the fragility and delicacy of their collector.
What makes this production feel so fresh and alive is the way in which its gifted quartet of actors—the incomparable Cherry Jones (Amanda), Zachary Quinto (Tom), Celia Keenan-Bolger (Laura), and Brian J. Smith (Jim O’Connor, the gentleman caller)—move across space, and time, conveying a relatedness that survives only in memory. Choreographer Steven Hoggett, who is credited with developing the actors’ “movement,” has created a balletic language which seems to spring organically from the play’s themes.
Contrast the pugilistic postures of Mr. Quinto and Ms. Jones as they fence about Tom’s mysterious nightlife (he says he goes to the movies) with the gentle synchronicity of Ms. Jones and Ms. Keenan-Bolger as they lay an imaginary tablecloth and utensils on their dinner table. Or better yet, watch Mr. Quinto navigate the set like a caged animal, torn between the poles of filial responsibility and the desire for freedom at any cost, the pull of the latter conveyed by his forward lean into the black inky abyss that surrounds him. Pay further attention to the exchange on the fire escape between Tom and Jim, the gentleman caller whom Tom has brought home from work, putatively, to meet Laura. The charged body language between these two young men as they share confidences about their dreams for the future makes a compelling case for how Tom could consider Jim his closest friend at work, yet remain (willfully) ignorant of Jim’s relationship status (he’s engaged), while plausibly suggesting why Jim might have chosen to keep his relationship status a secret from the pal he affectionately refers to as “Shakespeare.”
And then there is the language of the play itself, channeled through four performers who have created the most achingly moving Menagerie that I have seen. Amanda Wingfield always struck me as a neurotic narcissist who projects her disappointments and delusional ambitions onto her children. While those elements still exist in Ms. Jones’ complex performance, Ms. Jones evokes more sympathy for Amanda than any other actress that I have seen play this role. She portrays Amanda as a feral maternal warrior, armed with the knowledge that Tom, like his father (“a telephone man who fell in love with long distances”), will abandon her, and thus is racing against this inevitability to enroll Tom in her quest to secure a husband for Laura.
Mr. Quinto, best known for his film and television work (Star Trek, American Horror Story: Asylum), proves himself a masterful stage actor, with pitch-perfect line readings that mine the rich humor of Tom’s cynicism, while expertly modulating between Tom’s rage toward Amanda and his tenderness toward Laura. While Ms. Keenan-Bolger may be a tad too pretty to play the introverted and frightened Laura, she is heartbreakingly vulnerable in her scene with Mr. Smith in which she gradually lets go of her crippling insecurity and lets in the possibility of a romantic connection. And Mr. Smith, in what is perhaps the most difficult role in the play, renders Jim with a tender, goofy affability, who, under the magic of candlelight, could certainly occur to Laura, Amanda, and even Tom, as “the long-delayed but always expected something that we live for.”
This production of Menagerie fully realizes the “plastic theater” imagined by Williams in a way that (I suspect) no other production before it has succeeded in doing. Its haunting power lingers in memory long after Laura’s candles are extinguished, and, for me, provides a beacon of hope for the transcendence that is still possible when the lights go down and the curtain goes up even when, as here, we think we have taken the journey before.