9.14.13 — Everybody remembers the last five minutes of The Glass Menagerie, but I’ve never seen a production that placed such careful and meaningful emphasis on the first five minutes as John Tiffany’s revival currently on Broadway. I guess I’ve heard it a bunch of times, but I could never have told you that Tom Wingfield’s opening soliloquy describes economic conditions in the 1930s, “when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind. Their eyes had failed them or they had failed their eyes, and so they were having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy.” I wouldn’t have believed you if you told me that his mother Amanda would describe one of her suitors as “The Wolf of Wall Street” (the name of Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming film, starring Leonard DiCaprio and set in the contemporary world of securities fraud). Most of all, Tiffany and his key collaborators – choreographer/movement designer Steven Hoggett and set/costume designer Bob Crowley – combine the “memory play” aspect of Glass Menagerie with Tom’s mention of “tricks up his sleeve” to frame the naturalistic family scenes at the heart of the play with inventive, sometimes downright peculiar visual effects. As with Once and The Black Watch, the shows that put the team of Tiffany and Hoggett on the map in New York, scene changes and transitions often involve the actors performing strange abstract gestural “dances”: Tom is drawn from the fire escape into the living room backwards as if memory exerted a literally magnetic pull; “setting the table” becomes a curious ethnographic tribal rite; and without giving away any spoilers, let’s just say Laura has never made an entrance before the way she does here.
The production concept is strong and remarkable because it doesn’t get in the way of the actors but gives them something extra on their plate, so they go about their business (on a tiny island of tenement surrounded by Crowley’s lake of black goo) a little bit like naturalistic actors but also a little bit like performance artists. I think Tennessee Williams would have approved. His introductory stage directions explicitly state, “The scene is memory and is therefore non-realistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart. The interior is therefore rather dim and poetic.”
The actors are all terrific. Although Cherry Jones didn’t erase my memories of previous Amandas (Jessica Tandy, Jessica Lange, Judith Ivey), it didn’t remind me of any previous Cherry Jones performances, it’s completely created in the moment, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget her shattering delivery of the simple line “Betty who?” Amanda Plummer set a high-water mark for me playing Laura opposite Jessica Tandy, but I thought Celia Keenan-Bolger was awfully good – troubled and stubborn and a lot less fragile than we sometimes think of Laura as being. It’s always tough inhabiting a character so ostentatiously representing the playwright, but Zachary Quinto plays a lot of colors: claustrophobic, poet, proud member of the working class, resentful yet loyal son, loving brother. And there’s an attenuated moment on the fire escape with Jim, the Gentleman Caller (Brian J. Smith, suitably operating on a different frequency than the Wingfields), that suggests some history of physical intimacy the play never otherwise makes explicit.
The producers, by the way, have made available a thorough and informative study guide to the play – you can download the PDF here.