The Glass Menagerie is one of the best American plays ever written; few serious about the theatre would question this assertion and most frequent theatergoers have encountered the play — or some allusions to it. So it comes as a particular pleasure to experience a classic play with a fresh eye, as if it were polished and put on display in a different case, to be viewed at a slightly different angle despite the identicalness of its core. John Tiffany’s new production, starring Cherry Jones and Zachary Quinto, manages to elicit just that thrilling feeling.
The words here are all still Tennessee Williams’s, but the production crackles with newfound clarity. Somehow, Williams’s ponderous monologues seem somehow more pointed — particularly Tom’s scene-setting descriptions of the times — 1930s St. Louis — that he lives in. Bob Crowley’s scenic design plunks the Wingfield family down onto an island of three hexagonal hive-like platforms, set down at the bottom of a seemingly endless staircase ascending into the rafters. It’s as if these people with their ordinary worries are trapped in their circumstances, surrounded on all sides by the void — as represented by gooey, reflective black liquid that surrounds their solid playing space.
At regular intervals, our protagonists gaze into this black expanse. Occasionally, a sliver of moon emerges from it, catching their attention. More often, however, they’re engaged with their own worldly troubles. The son of the family, Tom, works in a factory to support his mother, Amanda, an over-the-hill Southern belle whose highest hope is that her frail daughter Laura, a nonstarter who walks with a limp, will find a husband and therefore alleviate the worries of the family’s circumstances. Tom, a budding writer, is itching to get out, but Amanda implores him to make sure his sister is accounted for before he leaves the nest.
As Tom, Zachary Quinto is a bundle of nerves moments away from cracking through the surface. For the first time it occurred to me watching Quinto’s performance that Tom as a character is somewhat of an angry young man in the making, a precursor to playwright John Osborne’s angst-ridden Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger about a decade later.
Cherry Jones, always luminous, oozes brusque, unabashed Southern charm as Amanda. Never one to shy away from speaking her mind, Amanda is a role that actresses of a certain age have traditionally coveted. Jones finds the heart and humanity behind this matriarch’s showy, brash qualities without diminishing her presence.
In supporting roles, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura and Brian J. Smith as the Gentleman Caller, who plays a major part in the second act, are similarly accomplished. This quartet of fine actors, who were turning in excellent performances during their earlier run at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts earlier in 2013, have only continued to gel in the interim. The play’s final scenes, in which delicate Laura comes face-to-face with her first serious Gentleman Caller — rival Blanche’s scenes with Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire as some of the most beautiful, truthful scenes in Williams’s oeuvre, and this production only magnifies their beauty, shining a light onto this luminous unicorn of a production so that audiences will want to keep it in their collection of favorite, unique remembrances.