Oct 042013

The current production of Tennessee Williams’ classic “The Glass Menagerie” has received almost universal critical acclaim from the mainstream press.  For me, it was one of those occasional theatre experiences that caused me to wonder whether the critics saw the same production I saw.  William’s play remains one of the great works of American theatre; a play that is both personal and universal; a work that demands re-viewing when a team of respected artists joins forces to revive a classic.  But the world of revivals is fraught with risk.  For play like “Menagerie,” virtually everyone in the audience has seen the play before and most have memories of their favorite productions that have been embellished by time and distance (as Menagerie’s central character notes, “the play is memory…”).

Even though many of the critics have called this production enlightening and revealing, it is a fairly traditional interpretation, and thankfully so, given the disastrous revival by Roundabout several years back that set the whole play in a hotel room with Tom (a.k.a. Tennessee Williams) writing the play as the scenes are acted out in his dilapidated chamber.  This production, directed by John Tiffany, emphasizes the way memory can be both very specific and quite general at the same time.  The set is evocative of a St Louis walk-up; no walls but clearly defined rooms with all of the necessary furnishings.  Props are reduced to include only the essential.  The all-important central image of the fire escape extends into the sky.  The costumes are realistic and appropriate.  Aside from a few strangely stylized moments evidently inserted to portray the fogginess of memory (e.g., Laura appearing and disappearing through the sofa cushions, characters wandering aimlessly on the stage), the staging is fairly faithful to Williams’ intent.

But any revival is only as strong as its actors’ performances and I came to “Menagerie” with high hopes.   Cherry Jones is among the best of American stage actors and seeing her as the domineering and delusional Amanda made this production a must-see for me.  Unfortunately, Ms. Jones’ performance is so overly mannered and artificial that the play loses all of its credibility. She seems entirely uncomfortable with her southern accent that she delivers with an oddly cupped sound.  Amanda lives in her own world but Ms. Jones appeared to be in her own play, rarely giving the impression that she heard the other characters speaking to her and forcing the actors portraying those characters to respond to someone who was totally unresponsive.  Williams wants the audience to see both of Amanda’s children, Tom and Laura (portrayed by Zachary Quinto and Celia Keenan-Bolger), as trapped in Amanda’s fantasy world.  But Ms. Jones pushes and inflates her character so broadly that Mr. Quinto and Ms. Keenan-Bolger have no opportunity to join her environment, let alone be repressed by it.

Mr. Quinto brings an unusual but interesting response to this challenge.  Usually Tom is portrayed as being torn between his responsibility to his family that he describes in the most lyrical of fashions and his need to escape a stifling life.  But Mr. Quinto’s Tom is an angry young man and everything he says and does is an extension of that anger.  Given the size and aggressiveness of Ms. Jones’ performance, this interpretation makes sense, even though it diminishes our appreciation of an artist finding himself and works against Tom’s sense of guilt in abandoning Laura.  Ms. Keenan-Bolger also seems to be forced into an exaggerated interpretation of Laura’s extreme introversion, although this is not damaging to the actress’ characterization that is quite credible and frequently moving.

Brian J Smith is a perfect gentleman caller.  In fact, the famous scene between Laura and her would-be caller has all of the lyrical beauty and painful anguish that makes the end of this play so emotionally powerful.

Rating: 3 of 5

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams at The Booth Theatre.

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