Tom (Quinto) and Amanda (Jones) on the set, surrounded by the reflecting pool

John Tiffany’s brilliant production of Williams’s classic boasts acting so precise and full and rich I sometimes found myself raised above the play, marveling at the skill and talent instead of feeling my emotions caught by those expressed onstage.  As even Ben Brantley rhapsodized in the Times, the production is devastating from start to finish.  Those of us who know how acting works know how rarely even the best performers are able to make that complicated transfer of molecules from themselves to their characters, and between their characters and the others they’re working with.  When we see it, as at this performance, we can’t help but reserve part of our own emotional labor for empathizing not just with the characters but with Cherry Jones as Amanda, Zachary Quinto as Tom, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura, and Brian J. Smith as Jim, the gentleman caller.

The St. Louis apartment, floating over a dark pool

These actors make these characters’ lives look both real and abstracted, through John Tiffany’s signature anti-realist moments that grace the production.  Bob Crowley’s gorgeous schematic set design, gilded with nearly mystical lighting by designer Natasha Katz, emblematizes the family’s isolation and displacement with two connected platforms floating on an inky, watery lake into which Tom and Laura gaze and sometimes almost fall.  Above the family’s cramped St. Louis apartment extends a fire escape, with metal stairs that zigzag up into the flies, becoming smaller and smaller until the trick of perspective makes them seem to disappear into the heavens.  The space of performance, in this elegant, elegiac production, makes palpable the play’s content and form; Glass Menagerie is a memory play, and Tiffany’s production gives it all the ghostly remove and fleshy warmth of regretful remembrance.

Most striking about these virtuoso performances are the new insights they bring to characters who’ve long been part of high school and college literature syllabi and acting classes.  Amanda, Tom, and Laura can easily be clichés, haunted by spectators’ memories of too-young women in amateur productions reaching for Amanda’s long view of her own embellished memories, or of similar women equally ill-equipped to inhabit Laura’s debilitating shyness and introversion.  That Tiffany’s ensemble finds so many new colors within these characters, singularly and together, is the production’s real marvel.

Amanda, Tom, and Laura create a family of three, haunted by their collective memory of the husband and father who worked the telephone lines and one day just decided to up and follow those wires elsewhere.  His desertion sometimes creates a vacuum not just in the characters’ lives but in productions of Menagerie, as mother, son, and daughter circle around the absent, destructive figure without whom they don’t quite know how to structure their lives.  Amanda’s husband was a drunk, a man hardly worthy of the southern aristocracy she imagines as her origins.  But for Tom, his father’s choice to flee represents a freedom whose sweet bitterness he, too, is beginning to taste.

Amanda and Laura, adoring one another

Within the crushing burden of their mother’s florid memories and Laura’s impossible disabilities and Tom’s latent but pressing homosexuality, Tiffany and his actors find improbable, hopeful love.  Tom and Laura might cut their eyes at one another and mimic Amanda’s long-rehearsed speeches about her days as a debutante, but it’s clear here that her children adore her nonetheless.  And who couldn’t?  Jones’s Amanda is a tour-de-force, a vivid, loving portrait of a woman who might be deluded about her past but is clear-sighted and determined about securing a future for her compromised daughter.  Jones is Mama Rose without the music  of Gypsy and without that stage mother’s cruelty and bitterness; when she sits on the family’s battered old couch with Laura, Jones’s Amanda caresses the girl’s face and beams at her with real love and devotion.  Jones’s Amanda isn’t the flibbertigibbet other performers often create; she’s a battle ax of emotional fortitude and pragmatism.  How else could she ensure her limited daughter’s future but by finding a gentleman caller to rescue her?

Laura, Jim, and the doomed unicorn

Jim’s second-act appearance cracks open the fault lines among the family’s threesome.  Smith plays him beautifully, as a formerly formidable physical and artistic specimen who’s lost his own footing against the shadow of his spectacular past.  As he begins to realize the weight of Amanda, Tom, and Laura’s expectations for him, and the inevitability that he’ll disappoint them, Smith delicately lowers the boom of his prior commitments, guiding the family gently into a future he can’t fix.  Smith and Keenan-Bolger play their crucially two-handed scene with nuance and affection, which makes the impossibility of Jim’s saving Laura that much more poignant.  The play becomes a sustained ache, made painful and profound by the depth of the characters’ tangled feelings not just for themselves, but for one another.

As he did in Once, the musical adaptation of the indie Irish film, director Tiffany gently reminds his audience that they’re watching a play.  Quinto and Keenan-Bolger, placed precariously on the edge of the floating set, perform grace notes of movement, gesturing out into the water that magically reflects their actions and mirrors the set’s height in what seems to be the pool’s immeasurable depth.  These abstracted movements (created by Steven Hoggett, who also choreographed Once and the equally impressive Peter and the Starcatcher) could be pretentious embellishments.  Instead, because they’re simple and only lightly symbolic, they read as moments of sad revelation, gestures toward emotions that even Williams’s words can’t express.  They don’t break the fourth wall as much as they bring a heightened vocabulary to a play and a production already soaked in sentiment (though not sentimentality).

The inimitable Cherry Jones as Amanda

Jones is always a revelation on stage.  She’s a terrific television and film actor, but the stage lets her expand her gestures and her presence.  She’s an actor with such a big, beaming heart, with such abundant love for the moment of performance, she has to be seen live to truly appreciate her intelligent, capacious talent.  Quinto—making his Broadway debut—meets Jones more than halfway with his own smart, liquid portrait of a man choked by his own inexpressible need for more than a mid-century, mid-West, Middle America life can afford.  Quinto’s deep-set eyes enhance Tom’s watchful intensity, but he matches Jones’s loose-limbed charisma to make Tom a sexy presence full of potential impossible to squelch.

Laura and the unicorn, lit by Natasha Katz to appear as though it shines from within

Keenan-Bolger, too, makes Laura an anchor point on the characters’ triangle, down-playing the girl’s famous limp and enmeshing her instead in a tangle of loyalties and confusions that somatize not just her own but her mother’s and brother’s anxieties and longings.  And Smith is equally accomplished and heart-breaking as the man brought to save them, who can’t even save himself.

Williams’s women have been much in evidence lately, with Emily Mann’s production of Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway two seasons ago, and Woody Allen’s borrowing of Blanche for Cate Blanchett’s character in Blue Jasmine last summer.  Cherry Jones finds the steely strength in Williams’s Amanda, but breaks our hearts with the depth of her love.

The Feminist Spectator

The Glass Menagerie, at the Booth Theatre, Broadway.

 

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