The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. Directed by David Leveaux. Scenic and costume design by Tom Pye. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Jon Weston. Hair/wig design by David Brian Brown. Music composed by Dan Moses Schreier. Cast: Jessica Lange, Josh Lucas, Sarah Paulson, and Christian Slater.
There are cracks aplenty in The Glass Menagerie as directed by David Leveaux. The revival at the Barrymore only reinforces long-standing questions about Leveaux's facility with American works: His productions of Nine and Fiddler on the Roof were botches, but his revival of Tom Stoppard's Jumpers last season was dazzling. Now, his reconception of Tennessee Williams's gently sweeping dream play is nothing short of a discordant nightmare.
If you're able to jolt yourself to alertness during this production - which won't be easy - you're likely to experience only frustration. It's all too easy to see how Leveaux's choices to highlight the interplay of the untenable present and the uncertain past might have resulted in an evening that would have magnified the troubles of the Wingfield family into something universally recognizable. After all, the Wingfields live in a world equal parts reality and fantasy, and questions about which is which hang over the play like curtains over a window.
But must physical curtains also hang over this production? They're the most omnipresent feature of Tom Pye's scenic design, which, in its attempts to reconcile the realistic and imagined elements of Williams's text, fails to recall Depression-era St. Louis as much as it does a hospital room. Those curtains, patterned like period wallpaper, are opened or drawn by members of the cast in ways intended to focus tension and feeling by establishing boundaries between different onstage locations, and between the performers and the audience. But the effect of the curtains - and Natasha Katz's lighting of them - renders the performers behind them as silhouettes and instead keeps us at a discreet emotional distance.
Much the same can be said of Jessica Lange, who plays the Wingfield family matriarch, Amanda. Lange, a two-time Oscar winner (for Tootsie and Blue Sky) is no stranger to Williams, having previously appeared in a 1985 TV production of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof and in the 1992 Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire (which was made into a TV movie in 1995). Yet she displays neither commanding stage presence, nor the domineering presence of character necessary to create a complete Amanda.
This faded, aging Southern belle, who emasculates her children with the impossible expectations of living up to her own past of gentility and gentleman callers, must drive her family apart while desperately trying to hold it together. From the beginning, though, it's clear that Lange's Amanda barely possesses even tacit emotional control over her son Tom (Christian Slater) or her daughter Laura (Sarah Paulson). The weapons in Lange's dramatic arsenal allow her to believably manipulate Tom into bringing home a factory coworker named Jim O'Connor (Josh Lucas) as a potential suitor for Laura, or shame Laura into submission for her failure at following through at business school. But Lange never has stature enough to center the play.
And centering is what The Glass Menagerie needs most. Its scenes, as befitting a memory play, frequently seem like vignettes, fragments of story that only gradually come together into a meaningful whole. But they need a guide, and lacking a director with a workable vision for crystallizing the play's disparate emotions into believable drama, that guide must be Amanda. Lange walks with a skip, laughs with a lilt, and looks resplendently youthful when dressed in a decades-old frock (Pye also did the costumes) to celebrate Jim's momentous visit. But she controls nothing along the way.
It's only during the climactic encounter between Jim and Laura that the production feels truly on track. Paulson's affected delivery usually makes her Laura more a caricature of self-loathing than a believable waif, and Lucas too often overplays his good-guy bravado, but they do discover a quiet magic in the scene, in which Laura finds (and subsequently loses) everything she's ever dreamed of. This is echoed in Lucas in a way that suggests he too is trapped in the past, and is not entirely the proponent of modern living he outwardly claims. It's the production's single affecting scene.
As Tom, Williams's avatar and the play's narrator, Slater seems to have emerged from Laura's treasured collection of glass animals to deliver a performance of great stiffness and stolidity. Only in the briefest of instances - usually during Tom's arguments with his mother - are there visible flashes of the playful, angry intensity that Slater has used to light up a number of fairly forgettable films. But, as Slater lacks a wide range of vocal and emotional colors for use onstage, Tom's tenderness for his sister and his desperation to escape his mother's clutches, at least as important as his blow-ups, never register.
One wonders how Dallas Roberts, who was originally cast as Tom but didn't make it through rehearsals, would have spun the role. He's a stage actor of impressive resourcefulness (he lit up the stage earlier this season in Caryl Churchill's terrific A Number), and likely would have more successfully evoked the play's transient and ethereal qualities. But the chances are good he wouldn't have been the one factor that would have polished up this Glass Menagerie; Lange and Leveaux are just working too hard to prove how fragile even the greatest works of theatre can be.