Friday, October 11, 2013

The Glass Menagerie

Celia Keenan-Bolger isn’t alone on stage in director John Tiffany’s Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie. The great two-time Tony winner Cherry Jones is also up there with her at the Booth Theatre. But no matter what drama was transpiring in this Tennessee Williams classic, my eyes never strayed far from Keenan-Bolger. Even when she knelt or sat silently in the shadows, her Laura dominated the stage for me.

I’ve never viewed The Glass Menagerie this way before. It was always Amanda’s play, and it would seem that has long been the experience of critics and audiences, since discussions of the play always center on who played Amanda and how was she, starting with the first, Laurette Taylor, and continuing through the years with Jessica Tandy, Julie Harris and Jessica Lange, to name a few. But I don't recall much discussion or commentary about great Lauras.

I mentioned how drawn to Laura I was to my friend Mary when we were leaving the theatre and she said she had the same reaction and that it reminded her of the first time she read the play and Laura had been the center of it for her. When she said that I remembered having the same response when I first read it as a sophomore in high school. It was Laura’s play to me then, but in my viewings since, Amanda always dominated.

Keenan-Bolger allowed me to see the play as I first had fallen in love with it. Her Laura is so fragile I felt she could shatter at any moment. I instinctively kept an eye on her because I wanted to protect her. With a childlike voice, frightened expression and cowering gestures, she seems ready to disintegrate, like some delicate plant that cannot last long in the harshness of the world.

The ghostlike quality that Keenan-Bolger captures so perfectly is the heart of Williams’s “memory play,” and is supported fully by Natasha Katz’s brooding lighting, which is like a fifth character in the play. The entrances and exits choreographed for Laura by Steven Hoggett are pure genius, making her all the more the haunting dream figure she is for her brother, Tom (Zachary Quinto), the play’s narrator. When he delivered his final lines, “Blow out your candles, Laura -- and so goodbye,” my eyes filled with tears.

This production, largely thanks to Keenan-Bolger, is just so heart-achingly sad and theatrically beautiful. I was completely transported, so much so that when the theatre doors opened after the matinee performance and the sun shone in, I was startled. I was fully engrossed, even though I know the play so well I can recite line after line in my mind with the actors. This was a new play for me, and I heartily thank Ms. Keenan-Bolger for that.

I imagine Williams would like this interpretation too, since it was his timid sister -- and domineering mother -- who inspired the play.

As for Amanda, Jones avoids making her the intentionally cruel mother sometimes portrayed, for which I am grateful. She captures Amanda’s gallantry, which I liked, yet I didn’t sense Amanda’s vulnerability. A faded southern belle deserted long ago by her husband -- that “telephone man who fell in love with long distances” -- she has plenty to be regretful about and catalogues these complaints readily, but Jones has such a carry-on type force that I didn’t see the weakness and pain underneath. She might have an accent, but her spirit is pure Yankee.

Quinto’s Tom is a nice balance of a young man trapped between his sense of obligation and his overpowering desire to escape. He loves his severely shy and “crippled” sister and his nagging mother too, but he wants to be a writer and have a life of his own. Quinto never allows Tom’s anger to go over the top, though, which is a relief because I’ve seen some explosive Toms before. I’m sure Williams would appreciate this too since Tom is the Williams character in the play.

The three actors connect and fail to connect just as they are supposed to in this sad family. They are people who love each other, just not in the way each needs to be loved.

Last to appear is the would-be savior, the Gentleman Caller Amanda has prodded Tom into bringing home from work to meet Laura, whom Amanda desperately wants to marry off. Brian J. Smith (in photo with Keenan-Bolger) is the most likable of the Gentleman Callers, whose name is Jim, I’ve seen. He and Keenan-Bolger have a natural chemistry that makes their time together seem real as he helps Laura emerge briefly from her shell.

Set designer Bob Crowley (who also did the Depression-era costumes) has taken a counterintuitive approach to creating the claustrophobic St. Louis tenement that is so depressing for Amanda, a trap for Tom and a refuge for Laura where she can escape into the world of her glass animal collection. Rather than show the walls that hem the characters in, he offers an open stage with a few pieces of furniture to indicate the living room and the dining room. The oppressiveness is conveyed by a fire escape rising out of sight that dominates the stage, and by Katz’s lighting and Nico Muhly’s haunting original music.

Haunting is the word that best describes this production in general, all the haunting, painful memories that are what this play is about. One scene in particular will stay with me forever, or at least I hope it will. Laura kneels on the living room floor with the horn from the unicorn figurine, her favorite, that was knocked off of the table while she and Jim were dancing. Jim has gone, having disillusioned Laura and Amanda by declaring he had a fiancé. (He hadn’t known his invitation to dinner was a setup for Laura.) Keenan-Bolger, alone in the living room, holds the horn before her eyes and stares long and intensely at it, as if she can see the future in it. Then in one decisive gesture, she tosses it away and I felt I could see a door shut in her mind, as if she were purposefully closing down to all joy and possibility. It was a quiet moment, one that with a gesture and a look rocked with emotion and power. I felt I was watching someone die. It was one of the most painfully beautiful scenes I’ve experienced in the theatre.

This production of The Glass Menagerie, first produced at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA last winter, has extended its Broadway run until February 23, 2014, having originally been scheduled to end Jan. 5.  For information, visit

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