Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - September 26, 2013
The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. Directed by John Tiffany. Movement by Steven Hoggett. Scenic & costume design by Bob Crowley. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Clive Goodwin. Music by Nico Muhly. Cast: Cherry Jones, Zachary Quinto, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Brian J. Smith.
This message may be harsh and unforgiving but Williams rarely let people off the hook easily, especially with this play, which premiered on Broadway in 1945. As directed by John Tiffany (Once) and performed by the imposing-sounding cast of Cherry Jones, Zachary Quinto, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and Brian J. Smith, this production traps people within the cages of their own recollection like few others.
From one standpoint, this proves a powerful way to underscore the deepest themes at work. Unabashedly a memory play, even invoked with precisely those words by Tom Wingfield (Quinto) in his opening speech as he looks back on his mother Amanda (Jones) and adult sister Laura (Keenan-Bolger) during the ravages of the Great Depression, The Glass Menagerie is a place where things are never quite what you expect, and, in fact never quite real at all.
Tiffany taps into all of this, using the set (Bob Crowley, who also designed the costumes) to represent Tom's disconnected visions of home amid a vast pool of liquid that encourages pondering reflection; lighting (by Natasha Katz) and scenic tricks to cause characters to dissolve out of and into thin air; and stylized movement (by Steven Hoggett) between the scenes to lend the proceedings a hazy, dreamlike quality that makes it clear we're forever ensconced in Tom's mind.
Rarely is Tom's anguish, or the depths of his sacrifice, as acutely felt as it is here. Quinto depicts the man as both astoundingly sensitive and oddly thin-skinned, a combination that lets you understand why his obsession with his past is tinged with anger as well as regret. The gentle severity Quinto brings to this role (as to most of the roles he's played, onstage and on screen) is ideal for a Tom who views these events as the disquieting turning point in his life, and both the actor and the character are solid, affecting centerpieces.
Keenan-Bolger does her best stage work to date as Laura, shedding every stitch of the piercing whininess that frequently creeps into her portrayals in favor a young woman who's achingly accepted her lot. Applying only a light limp from an inward-turned foot to Laura's necessary deformity, Keenan-Bolger points up Laura's essential ordinariness, as tinted by the shadows of hope long desiccated, without excess or artifice. It's beautiful work that fixes Laura as the fulcrum of Tom's adult existence.
But if the intense focus on memory pays dividends in these areas, it has its drawbacks as well. Chief among these is the loss of the work's epic texture, leaving it feeling like an everyday, stripped-down play uncertain of what its core should be. This manifests itself in ways small and large.
Among the tinier are the evidences of the unreality of everything, which can make themselves almost too easy to notice. If it's clear that Tom is selectively creating the details of his story, the absence of any of Laura's glass animals besides the unicorn or the portrait of their forever-absent father, despite their frequent mentions in the dialogue, become conspicuous in the wrong ways. And both Hoggett's movement and the "special effects," which include Laura's first entrance and final exit and an evening-closing candle trick, are more self-consciously theatrical than they are appropriate to Tom or the lines that envelop them.
Jones, as good a stage actress as we have, should be titanic as Amanda, but doesn't entirely break through. She offers a hint — only a hint, but a hint nonetheless — of caricature that makes the woman less than absolutely convincing as the embodiment of either faded Southern grandeur, the quickly evaporating American dream, or the most personally devastating force Tom has known.
Only in the final scene, when the family's fortunes are carved into stone, does Jones drop all the theatricality and let you see the brutalized woman who has nothing left. That moment sears in a way you expect many others to, but a chilly undercurrent prevents Jones from completely catching fire, even in classic scenes: When Amanda appears decked out in a country dress several decades out of date, for example, you don't experience the pain and pity you should — Jones never exactly looks like she ever belonged in it at all.
This is indicative of the production's greatest obstacle: its inability to transport you. This, as with the other things here that are less than ideal, can be satisfactorily explained by the concept that wants you to see everything not as it actually was but as Tom remembers it. Whatever else it may be, however, memory is ultimately unreliable, and Tom's exaggeration of his mother and his downplaying of everything else are not ways to effectively elicit the wrenching emotional responses The Glass Menagerie is capable of.
You're always aware that you're watching an intricately crafted, and often dazzlingly executed, representation of something resembling life — but it fails to become life or transcend representation. If Williams envisioned the "memory play" structure as a way to unveil something more concrete than realism could produce on its own, that is a standard that, despite the many virtues to be found within, this production does not fully meet.