The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
At the Belasco Theatre on Broadway
BS Rating: C+
Show-Score Rating: 70
If you are familiar with Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (and who isn’t?), when you walk into the Belasco Theatre you are likely to whisper to yourself, “Oh, no, it’s going to be one of those productions.” The stage is bare revealing the theatre’s walls, fly gallery, and service doors. There is a 1950s-style dinette on stage right and a few Knickknacks on stage left. That’s it.
Sam Gold’s production is an interesting, if not always successful, rethinking of this classic. In the process, he sheds light on aspects of the play that are rarely as clear in more traditional productions. But he also distorts some qualities that are central to Williams’ style and intent. The most fascinating innovation is the main focus of this production, an interpretation that I think is faithful to the playwright’s intent. It is a battle between mother (Sally Field) and son (Joe Mantello): the story of a young artist who is oppressed by his commitment to his sister and his desire to break free of his domineering mother. More traditional productions usually use these clashes to reveal Amanda, the mother, as a deluded, self-possessed remnant of the old South. This production shows us two people who cannot get what they want from each other, and every effort they make toward accomplishing their individual goals only causes them to move further apart.
The acting style in this production is contemporary. The actors are no longer caught in some sentimentalized memory – they speak with none of the embellishments that Williams’ poetic grace usually requires. Joe Mantello makes the most of this new freedom playing Tom as a fully realized person struggling to break away from his entrapment. It is a very fine and enlightening performance. Ms. Field brings her well-honed skills to a very different Amanda. Most of the time she is very successful as a nagging, insensitive, domineering mother – certainly “playing against type” of the roles we are used to seeing her perform. She has abandoned the deep southern accent. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to utter some of the speeches that Williams has given Amanda without replicating the rhythms and tone that the playwright so deftly created around the sound of a Southern drawl. So, at times her speech sounds oddly stilted and her naturalistic acting style trips over the language.
Tom tells us “the play is memory, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.” Gold’s production ignores that description; in fact, he is intent in stripping the play of its sentimentality. The lack of period dress and settings, the stark lighting (the house lights remain on for the first 30 minutes), the simple and spare furnishings — all make this play more of an interpersonal horror story than a place where “in memory everything seems to happen to music.” There is much to be gained from this alternate point of view. This radical departure from the expected forces an audience who has seen this play too many times to rethink its meaning. That’s what reinterpretation should do. But there are limits on how effective such a transformation can be with material that is so poetic and expressionistic in tone.
And then there is Laura, Tom’s sister. Williams tells us “a childhood illness has left her crippled, one leg slightly shorter than the other…this defect need not be more than suggested on stage.” At the core of Laura’s character is her extreme reaction to her differentness causing her to cut herself off from the outside world, obsessed with her glass menagerie and old music on the phonograph. Mr. Gold made a bold move in casting this role. Madison Ferris is a disabled actor; however, her disability is far more incapacitating than the “slight disability” Williams describes for Laura’s character. This difference makes much of the action around Laura awkward and occasionally totally unbelievable, like when Amanda sends Laura on an errand to the grocery store and Ms. Ferris must work her way out of her wheel chair and crawl down a set of stairs to leave by one of the theatre’s exit doors. There are some interesting interpretive choices that Ms. Ferris makes. When she opens up to her “gentleman caller,” there is a sort wry quality to her observations about her past and her current state of mind. She is not the introverted fragile glass unicorn that usually restrains actors playing Laura. But as with Ms. Field’s more grounded portrayal, there is a bit of disjointedness between the way Ms. Ferris plays Laura and the character Mr. Williams wrote. Her encounter with Mr. O’Connor, the gentleman caller (Finn Wittrock), is less tender and more didactic, consistent with Mr. Gold’s effort to de-romanticize the action, even though it’s lit solely by candlelight.
It’s not surprising that this production elicits none of the emotional impact that more traditional approaches stimulate. This is a “thinking man’s” “Glass Menagerie” – and the oddity of those two phrases in the same sentence reflects the best and worst of this unusual interpretation of this legendary play.