by Nita Congress · October 4, 2013
Classic Plays: Nita Congress looks at Tennessee Williams' play at the Booth Theatre “Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” And with those words we are ushered into a sacred place: the memory play that is one of the singular masterpieces of American literature, The Glass Menagerie.
The current and already much-acclaimed production of Menagerie features riveting, heartfelt performances and thoughtful, thought-provoking design. It has spirit and sincerity and skill. While it did not move me to the catharsis I had hoped for, it did renew my deep appreciation and admiration for the beautiful language, poetic compression, and sweet sadness that Tennessee Williams alone proffers. Some of my favorites: “A telephone man who fell in love with long distances,” “time is the longest distance between places,” and “the future becomes the present, the present the past, and the past turns into everlasting regret if you don't plan for it!”
It is probably not necessary to summarize the plot: Tom, the narrator, remembers the family—sister Laura and mother Amanda—he left behind. In most productions, It is obvious that Tom is leaving—must leave—the crushing, grinding, grating perpetual disappointment of his mother and the tragic helplessness and hopelessness of his sister. Cherry Jones’s radiant warmth as Amanda undercuts and transmutes this interpretation. Her love for her children is palpable. Chirpily annoying as she is with her endless recitations of a time of happy plenitude when there weren’t chairs enough to accommodate all the gentleman callers nor vases enough to quarter the profusion of cut jonquils, wincingly persistent as she is as she plies her trade as a 1930s telemarketer of ladies’ magazines, Amanda is no monster.
As Tom, Zachary Quinto is appropriately passionate and dark and mercurial. As Laura, Celia Keenan-Bolger is fittingly soft and stunted. But to me, it was Brian J. Smith as the much-longed-for gentleman caller (Williams’s text is divided into two parts: Part I, Preparation for a Gentleman Caller; and Part II, The Gentleman calls) who not only embodied but enhanced his character. He displayed a disappointed wistfulness behind Jim’s bluff heartiness that told volumes about this American specimen: the high school big shot who peaked early and now dimly realizes that, at twenty-three, his best years are behind him.
Director John Tiffany has crafted the memory play with care and thought: the set floats in a black reflective pool (a device that, unfortunately, is not quite visible until about midway up the orchestra, but must be stunning from the mezzanine) against a black backdrop. There are few items of scenery and fewer props, but those that are there are vividly colored and beautifully lit. In this spartan presentation, one unicorn stands in for Laura’s entire menagerie: you become used to this, but I do think you miss having this physical embodiment of the totality of Laura’s world. Laura and Amanda are dressed throughout in pastels: blues and pinks and lilacs. Tom wears dark colors, and the outerwear the characters put on to go outside are dark as well. There are brilliant red pillows that prop up Jim and Laura during their—thwarted, unrequited—love scene. Thus has designer Bob Crowley used his few props, costumes, and scenic elements to good effect, with strong color statements.
The most vivid of these statements, for me, was abetted by Natasha Katz’s lighting design in a stunning moment of deflation when Amanda, dressed in a too-girlish white dress, receives Jim’s announcement of his upcoming engagement. Cherry Jones turned pale, and all the life and buoyancy left her face and manner as she absorbed this blow. And somehow, the lighting turned her dress as gray as her mood. It was a lovely moment with all the forces of theatre—actor, designer, director, and script—coming together to create a breathtaking impact.
And even though the production did not take me to that height again, it was a fine thing to have been there even so.