It takes courage to bring the lights down on Amanda Wingfield. The deluded but powerful matriarch at the center of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie is such a force that directors would be forgiven for bathing her in permanent spotlight, to allow Amanda’s hysterical monologues to soar like ballads from a Broadway musical. But early in the first act, while Amanda holds court at the dinner table recounting her past, director John Tiffany slowly but conspicuously dims the lights around the table. This Glass Menagerie, imported to the Booth Theatre after its premiere at Boston’s American Repertory Theater, refuses to cede the point of view to its most theatrical character, and the result is a production that gives her and her family more dignity than they may have experienced before.
Wingfield, of course, is the faded and abandoned Southern belle who dominates the dank apartment she inhabits with her adult son, Tom, and daughter, Laura. The plot, framed as a “memory play” by Tom, follows Amanda’s vain attempt to find a suitor for Laura, who’s been rendered weak and irredeemably shy by a long illness.
Bob Crowley’s set reduces the Wingfield apartment to a few pieces (couch, table, coat rack, small stool, a fire escape) surrounded by utter blackness. He captures both the precarity of the Wingfields’ economic situation and the fragility of Tom’s memory. Both teeter on the edge of collapse, Tom (in the present) clinging to images of the family he would eventually abandon, and Amanda (in the past) grasping onto her fantasy of a happy Southern family as prospects run dry. Though the ominous and unforgiving set may be the production’s smartest achievement, Tiffany occasionally has his characters run to the edge of the stage and stare into the blackness, literally balancing on the edge of disaster. These (infrequent) transformations of the implicit into the banal fail to trust the set’s simple clarity.
Thankfully Tiffany and his cast do trust Williams’s script, which in their hands becomes a snapshot of Depression-era illusion rather than a set piece for a loud actress. Cherry Jones’s Amanda, dressed in a long but practical blouse and with her hair in a bun, is committed and myopic but not crazy. She often speaks on her tip-toes, clutching her fists to gird her will or slamming her open palm to insist she be heard, but her eyes are open when they need to be. As though stapling her world together by will, Amanda’s cold desperation gives Jones’s performance its roots. When she asks Tom where he goes every night (“to the movies,” he insists) and asks Laura what her future will be, she clearly already knows the answers. Therefore, when she appears in a faded but fancy dress in the second act, reliving her glory days and loosening her limbs and hips to let the old ways re-enter her body, we yearn for her relief to be more than fleeting.
Zachary Quinto brings a sulking but simmering aggression to Tom, played as a man who knows who he isn’t, but not who he is. Quinto’s body shrinks when his mother enters the room, as though to keep himself from lashing out, while he becomes tender with his sister, loose and falsely casual with his co-worker, and somber when playing narrator. His physical dexterity doesn’t quite have its vocal equivalent; Quinto so delights in his accent, which uncannily recalls Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln, that he occasionally sacrifices emotional color for a more impressive drawl.
Celia Keenan-Bolger’s Laura, on the other hand, pronounces her lines with such deliberateness that it gives focus to her tightly wound energy. The intensity with which the character resists her situation, and the pained sincerity with which she articulates her shame and fear, suggests a will that’s a match for her mother. As a result, the tentative taste of happiness she allows herself with her ill-fated “gentleman caller”—a smile, a stare, a slight relaxing of the shoulders—is as poignant to gaze upon as anything I’ve seen.
Rounding out the cast is Brian J. Smith as that “gentleman,” played with the ease and good humor of a high school hero past his prime. Though Williams describes the character as “an emissary from a world of reality,” we find in Smith’s rendition as much a failed dreamer, drawn to the deluded fantasy of his forgotten youth, as the rest of the Wingfields.
Smith completes the picture Tiffany is painting of the anonymous indignity that confronted last century’s urban Americans, especially those old enough to remember a nobler past. The spirit of Tiffany’s Amanda Wingfield resembles Willy Loman’s much more than Momma Rose’s. The revelation of this Glass Menagerie is that it lets attention be paid to Wingfield’s woes.
The Glass Menagerie opened September 26th at the Booth Theatre.