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A CurtainUp Review
The Glass Menagerie
By Elyse Sommer
You undoubtedly know the Wingfields' story since the current revival is preceded by sixty-nine years worth of productions, as well as several movies. But given the stunningly fresh staging by Director John Tiffany and his crafts wizards from Once and the magnificent performances of his cast, this The Glass Menagerie retains its timeless pathos and poetry, yet sustains a sense of meeting Amanda, Tom, Laura and the long awaited and doomed to disappoint gentleman caller"" for the first time.
The actress who plays the Southern Belle who picked the wrong "gentleman caller to marry is usually the one who gets the most attention. Cherry Jones is not only the ticket selling name on the on the Booth Theatre's marquee but probably the most memorably believable of all the Amandas I've seen.
" Jones masterfully gets inside the skin of a woman raised to believe that being pretty and charming is the sole path to a good life, and she does so without excessive mannerisms and considerable humor. Consequently the compulsive recollections about her 17 gentlemen callers give new meaning to the grotesqueness of a middle-aged woman clinging to a long-gone past.
In Jones's portrayal, Amanda's nagging, self-deluded denial of Laura's physical and emotional problems — even the frilly costume donned for the doomed to fail dinner party— become the desperate coping mechanism of a woman with no other guidelines for dealing with a difficult reality. She's sufficiently grounded in the play's depression era to enable us to see her less genteel-raised counterparts in today's harsh economic world. Some of her most devastating moments are wordless.
John Tiffany and his stellar team contribute mightily to the sense of a first time viewing experience even by those of us for whom the Wingfields have become more like people we've known than characters in a play — or, in the case of the gentleman caller,"" a pop culture allusion.
Bob Crowley semi-abstract setting taps into the play's structure and mood. Since Tom introduces the play as a look back into memories of the family he abandoned to roam the world and pursue his literary ambitions, the events leading up to his breaking free are, like all memories, hazy. Thus Crowley's St. Louis Apartment is more metaphorically than specifically detailed. Each room is on a separate but close enough to navigate platforms (the space between each a potent symbol of what keeps this family uneasily bonded). As the Wingfields lives are dismally empty and lacking in security and joy, so these platform rooms are without walls and minimally furnished. Even Laura's glass menagerie is limited to a single but luminous unicorn.
I'm not familiar with the layout of the American Repertory Theater where this production first played last year. But while the pool of dark water around the apron of the stage is a brilliant additional visual metaphor for the dark abyss facing the Wingfield, neither the water or its dark reflection is visible everyone seated in the Booth's orchestra. A fellow critic who sat in a left aisle seat just a few rows from the stage told me that if she hadn't known about it, she would not have seen the dark liquid filling this moat-like addition to the stage. Ditto for my seat in the center section of the orchestra but further back. No problem seeing the eerily tall fire escape.
That visibility problem notwithstanding, this atmospheric set and Mr. Tiffany's deliberately slow pacing and stylized direction pull you right into the dismal world of this fatherless, impoverished family. Stephen Hoggett's movement choreography further enhances the sense of emptiness and slowly unraveling lives. As in Thornton Wilder's ground breaking Our Town, the daily dinners as well as the crucial one with the the gentleman caller"" on whom Amanda has pinned all her hopes, are served and cleared away without plates, utensils or food.
Mr. Crowley is a double hat wearing wizard, and his costumes are lovely and true to the 30s. The dreamy atmosphere is also strongly supported by Natasha Katz's lighting, especially during the candelabra lit scene between Laura and Jim. Nico Muhly's original music and Clive Goodwin's sound design further add to the overall richness and authentic flavor.
Tennessee Williams had Jim nickname the playwright's poetry writing stand-in character "Shakespeare" (Williams was born Thomas Lanier). That nickname turned out to be a prescient touch. This Glass Menagerie proves that Williams's poetry is every bit as worth experiencing again and again as that of the "other" Shakespeare.
For more about Tennessee Williams see our Tennesse Williams Backgrounder. It includes links to plays we've reviewed, memorable quotes, and interesting facts such as Williams's original intent for The Glass Menagerie as a film for Margare O'Brien to be called The Gentleman Caller.