Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

The Glass Menagerie
American Repertory Theater

Zachary Quinto, Cherry Jones, Brian J. Smith
and Celia Keenan-Bolger

It took the American Repertory Theater thirty-two years to get around to producing a play by the great American playwright Tennessee Williams, but they got it right on the first try. Under the direction of Tony Award-winner John Tiffany (Once), a 2010-2011 Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, The Glass Menagerie is a glistening example of artistry, featuring exceptional performances, synergetic design, and character interpretations that still resonate for an audience nearly seventy years after its premiere.

Williams liberally mined his own family saga to develop the Wingfield family and their state of affairs in a St. Louis tenement in the mid-1940s. Strong-willed matriarch Amanda (Cherry Jones) and fragile, painfully shy daughter Laura (Celia Keenan-Bolger) are brought to life in the memory of conflicted son Tom (Zachary Quinto), a poet who works in a dead end warehouse job and serves as both narrator of the play and stand-in for the playwright. He looks back at the mundane daily life that left him feeling trapped and unfulfilled, until the events of one evening shattered their illusions and propelled him out into the world, as if shot from a cannon.

Tiffany reunited with his team of Tony Award-winning Once designers, Bob Crowley (set/costumes), Natasha Katz (lighting), Clive Goodwin (sound) and Tony-nominated Steven Hoggett (movement), to create an unusual vision for the staging at the Loeb Drama Center. Hexagonal platforms serve as the living room, dining room and kitchen of the Wingfield apartment, with a towering fire escape looming above and a shimmering pool of black liquid just below the front edge of the stage. With ever-shifting lighting effects, a neon outline of a crescent moon and lights reflecting off the pool like stars, their intent is to give the effect of a home adrift in the galaxy. During scene transitions, original music for fiddle and piano by Nico Muhly is transporting.

It could be said that the occupants of the home are adrift in the universe, as well. Amanda is a force of nature, partly from her Southern upbringing and partly from circumstance, but after her husband abandoned her, she was left to raise their two children alone and had to find a way to survive. She got through the 1920s, only to be slammed by The Depression. Still, she held things together and, at the time of the story, she is driven to make "plans and provisions" for Laura, knowing that it is only a matter of time before their meal ticket Tom follows in his father's footsteps. Since leaving high school, Laura has been at loose ends, with no skills, no job prospects, no gentleman callers, and her collection of glass figurines her only companions and occupation. From his own words, we know that Tom has been aimlessly wandering since he left home, unable to reconcile his dreams with his demons.

Williams' masterpiece merits this quartet of actors, as skilled in their craft as the wordsmith whose poetry they so vividly animate. A founding member of the A.R.T., Jones returns to her artistic home with a singular portrayal. She virtually disappears into the character as Amanda fills the room with her overpowering presence. This Amanda is no shrinking violet or demure lily from Dixie, although Jones lets us see that aspect whenever she slips into wistful recollection of her days as a girl with a multitude of gentleman callers. Rather, this Amanda wears the pants in the family and conveys an urgency to her agenda, born of a mixture of micromanaging mother hen and dread of dependence. Despite Amanda's nagging, bullying and "poor me" outbursts, Jones' portrayal elicits sympathy for all that she's been through and her acceptance of dwindling hope for the future.

Keenan-Bolger impressed me with her heartbreaking fragility, silently speaking volumes with her rigid posture and clenched features. Laura finds solace when she focuses on the illuminated glass unicorn and lights up briefly when talking with her mother about a boy she liked in school. After her paralyzing fear subsides, she has a short-lived experience of normalcy with Jim, the gentleman caller (Brian J. Smith). Watching Keenan-Bolger tentatively let down her guard with him is like watching ice melt, revealing a hidden jewel. When Laura is ultimately disappointed, the actress resurrects her shell, but she has been changed.

The Gentleman Caller is like a breath of fresh air swirling into the stale confines of the Wingfield apartment, and Smith approaches the role with ease and likeability. Jim relates differently with each of the other characters—as buddy to Tom, as respectful guest to Amanda, and as interested friend to Laura—and Smith is genuine with regard to all. His discomfort at the conclusion of the scene with Laura is palpable, as is his feeling of responsibility for his actions. Unlike the members of the family, Jim has found a positive way to ground himself and be at peace with the universe.

Tom is definitely not at peace with himself or the universe, neither when narrating nor in the scenes with the family. Quinto's brooding appearance is an asset to express the turmoil within. He seems always on edge and restlessness seeps through his pores. Tom's struggle is between sacrifice and selfishness, and each time he is berated by or argues with Amanda, he moves closer to his destiny. Quinto and Jones angrily battle it out and, a moment later, he is tender and vulnerable with Laura, giving credibility to his tortured memories.

Tiffany's languid pacing of the first act conveys a feeling of the tension and tedium in the Wingfields' lives, making us look forward to the arrival of the gentleman caller almost as much as they do, if only to change the dynamic. The director enables the audience to understand that the anticipation is not specifically about him, but more about the possibilities he represents. Although the longings and dreams of Amanda and Laura are not fulfilled by Jim's visit, there is a suggestion that they have both learned things about themselves that will help them to live more grounded lives. The Glass Menagerie is a melancholy play, but this production brings out the beauty in it.

The Glass Menagerie performances through March 17, 2013, at The American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA; Box Office 617-547-8300 or Written by Tennessee Williams; Set & Costume Design, Bob Crowley; Lighting Design, Natasha Katz; Sound Design, Clive Goodwin; Music, Nico Muhly; Dialect Coach, Nancy Houfek; Production Stage Manager, Chris De Camillis; Movement, Steven Hoggett; Director, John Tiffany

Cast (in order of appearance): Zachary Quinto, Cherry Jones, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Brian J. Smith

Photo: Michael J. Lutch

- Nancy Grossman

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