The new Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie should come with a prohibition: no one unfamiliar with this 1944 Tennessee Williams classic will be allowed in. Director Sam Gold’s unconventional staging should not be anyone’s first experience of this moving, lyrical story of a broken family and its desperate attempts to carry on.
For someone like me who has loved the play since first reading it as a sophomore in high school, it was good to be at the Belasco Theatre to experience it again. This is the third Broadway production I’ve seen, as well as at least one other, at Baltimore’s CenterStage. In all of those I never saw Amanda as fully realized as she is portrayed by Sally Field, who takes that aging Southern belle turned abandoned wife and nagging mother into vulnerable human being who I liked and cared about.
What I didn’t like, and which is why I don’t think this should be anyone’s introduction to the play, is the casting of a seriously disabled actress, Madison Ferris, who has muscular dystrophy, as Laura, the painfully shy daughter who was the center of the play for me when I first read it. Ferris’ physical disability is so pronounced it is distracting. Her wheelchair had to be taken up and down stairs a couple of times either by Field or Joe Mantello, who plays her brother, Tom. This takes time away from the story, as does Gold’s odd decision to have her placed on the kitchen table on her stomach at one point while Tom exercises her legs.
I don’t understand why Laura would be so re-envisioned. Her disability is emotional. She is paralyzed by her self-consciousness, not her legs. If she had been physically vulnerable as well it would be understandable why at that time, Depression-era American, she would want to keep to herself and live in her world of little glass figures, her menagerie. Her physical disability is that one leg is slightly shorter than the other, for which she wears a brace. As Williams wrote, “This defect need not be more than suggested on the stage.” Laura, though, is overly embarrassed about it. “Laura’s separation increases until she is like a piece of her own glass collection, too exquisitely fragile to move from the shelf,” Williams wrote.
Laura feels different from others at school, and yet they hardly notice her limp. But everyone would notice this Laura of the wheelchair. With all of this Laura’s difficulty in getting around it seems downright sadistic when Amanda sends her out for a stick of butter. As written, Laura’s fragility is far more psychological than physical. That is lost in this production, because of the added physical disability but also because Ferris portrays Laura as self-contained in a positive way. She seems comfortable with herself and not overly emotionally weak.
Another character who feels altered is Jim (Finn Wittrock), the Gentleman Caller, who comes off like an idiot much of the time. I don’t remember that before. That certainly wasn’t the case in the 2013 Broadway revival when he was portrayed likably by Brian J. Smith.
Something else I didn’t remember was this much demonstrated affection between the Wingfields, with Tom at one point pulling Amanda onto his lap as they sit around the kitchen table. I liked that.
As for the staging, it took a bit of time for me to get used to the decision to have the play unfold on the full stage, bare except for a kitchen table on one side and a Victrola and records on the other, with the black brick wall of the theatre as backdrop. (Scenic design by Andrew Lieberman). Since the family is supposed to be living in strained financial conditions in a cramped St. Louis tenement, giving them vast space in which to roam around is strange. It’s like watching a rehearsal.
The house lights also remain on well into the play, which I didn’t get since the set is supposed to be dimly lit. (Lighting design by Adam Silverman.)
One element that I did love, and don’t want to give away too much of, is Amanda’s switch from disappointed middle-aged woman to shining Cotillion girl in the flash of an eye. (Costumes by Wojciech Dziedzic.) Field’s face is radiant as she is transformed to her happy young self, or at least her imagined grandeur of the past. It’s a moment of color and joy in an otherwise sad play.
But this is not a play about joy, and its sadness is made more pronounced in the way Gold has refigured the “blow out your candles, Laura” ending. The candles symbolize Laura’s soul and Williams has her blowing them out in the last scene. But in this version, Tom rather violently extinguishes them before he too abandons the family.
The final change is the last image, a switch from Amanda being seen comforting Laura to the haunting image of Laura sitting at the table with Amanda’s head in her lap, while she comforts her mother. A bleak ending made even bleaker with both choices.
Williams called The Glass Menagerie a “memory play,” and framed it with Tom talking to the audience about the family’s circumstances. Much of it is autobiographical as the playwright, like Tom, worked in a shoe factory and wrote when he could. Williams also had a domineering mother and a fragile sister whom he loved. Both families had moved from southern gentility to St. Louis to try to squeeze out a living. Williams’ father was a traveling salesman, Tom’s “a telephone man who feel in love with long distances.”
So many good lines in this play, my favorite being “the long delayed but always expected something that we live for.” I also love “the future becomes the present, the present the past, and the past turns into everlasting regret if you don’t plan for it!” and “Time is the longest distance between two places.”
Menagerie was Williams’ first successful play, gaining immediate acclaim when it opened on Broadway in 1945. Later classics include A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.