Review THE GLASS MENAGERIE Glimmers in Tiffany's Breathtaking Production
"I am the opposite of a stage magician," explains the autobiographical narrator of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, the play that provided the Broadway debut of one of America's leading playwrights.
Nevertheless, there is a breathtaking display of theatre magic in director John Tiffany's glimmering production. It's the kind of magic that enthralls an audience when a masterful play is interpreted with sensitive, theme-enhancing imagination and acted to perfection by an extraordinary ensemble.
Williams wrote the play as a faded memory of the time when he only dreamed of being a playwright, trying to escape from the stifling existence of living with his histrionic mother and emotionally fragile sister. With beautiful work by set designer Bob Crowley (who also provides the Depression period costumes) and lighting designer Natasha Katz, Tiffany's visuals wonderfully contrast real life and poetic recollections.
The St. Louis home of Amanda Wingfield and her adult children, abandoned 16 years ago by a husband and father who worked for the phone company and "fell in love with long distances," is represented by two sparsely furnished platforms, representing the dining room and living room. The platforms stand on a stage covered with a black liquid that reflects the actions of the characters, often allowing memories to float on a sea of stars or lie under the shine of a neon moon.
The selective nature of narrator Tom Wingfield's memories is realized by mixing natural movement with the abstract; in one startling example presented as surrealism. (Choreographer Steven Hoggett is credited as movement director.) Unimportant details, like the content of the meals they mime eating, are unseen. The presence of a door to their apartment is left unrecognized as characters walk in and out. The title menagerie is reduced to its one most important figurine and even the photograph of Tom's missing father, mentioned in the text as a significant visual, is missing. Nico Mully's delicate music serves to remind us that we're experiencing the filtered truth of a poet.
To one side is a towering fire escape, growing smaller with each level as though Tom recalls looking up at it from below as an escape to heavenly dreams.
The poet, not at all at ease with his past, is played with affection tinged with a sardonic edge by Zachary Quinto. When the production is funny, and it frequently is, it's seemingly due to his comical recollection of his mother's delusional behavior. His love for his sister is cute and impish but his yearning to achieve something more without being the second breadwinner of the family who scoots town is conveyed as a painful struggle.
Cherry Jones is arguably the finest American stage actor of our time and revivals of classics come to Broadway specifically so that artists such as her may make indelible marks in their leading roles. Here she is simply magnificent. Her Amanda Wingfield - part canary, part bulldozer - protects her delicate emotions with a brash, muscular exterior. The coy and flirtatious ways that nourished her southern belle youth are of no use to her in the grim reality of what her life has become, and yet she is determined to see her lame, awkward daughter nab a husband through girlish traditions.
Celia Keenan-Bolger, who has essayed an admirable collection of New York performances as spunky and intelligent girls and young women, has never been better than in her heartbreaking portrayal of Laura. Despite her limping body and softly shy voice, she wears the tense expression of someone who is continually guarding herself against hurt. At first, her private moments of joy and wonder are seen only by the audience. (Musical theatre lovers seeing this production will undoubtedly want to know if Cherry Jones can sing and if Celia Keenan-Bolger is good with animals.)
But in the second act's showcase scene, where Laura is left alone to chat with Tom's co-worker buddy, Jim (an excellent, Brian J. Smith, full of unrealized American dreams), who is unaware that he's been invited to supper as a "gentleman caller" for the lonely girl, she slowly, subtly blossoms like a daisy from the mud. Just try holding back tears while watching her reactions as Laura receives her dreams come true, only to have them immediately snatched away.
And then feel the anguish as Jones' Amanda hides her rage in order to properly treat her guest with genteel manners, only to lash out at her son once the visitor has gone.
Filled with riveting, human moments and graceful imagination, this production of A Glass Menagerie is about as perfect as theatre gets.