First Nighter: Tennessee Williams's Memorable Glass Menagerie, William Inge's Forgettable Natural Affection

09/26/2013 06:20 pm ET | Updated Nov 26, 2013

As far as I know, the only remains of Laurette Taylor's performance in The Glass Menagerie as Amanda Wingfield--considered the greatest ever by most of those who saw it--are a series of photographs and a sound recording made later and now owned by the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

The photographs were taken as publicity stills and depict moments from the phone call(s) Amanda makes as a saleslady for The Home-maker's Companion. They constitute a virtual flipbook of the sequence. Portraying Amanda's initial bright greeting to a friend whom she hopes will renew a subscription, Taylor eventually descends into humiliation and abject disappointment.

I bring the series up because Taylor's interpretation of the scene can be viewed as a template for many of the Amanda Wingfields I've witnessed over the years. Until, that is, I sat enthralled through Cherry Jones's take on one of the most famous roles in 20th-century American works.

Jones--heavy applause to her and to director John Tiffany for collaborating with her--presents a portrait spectacularly different of the former Southern belle who's proud of the 17 gentlemen callers she'd regularly entertain as a young woman and who now lives in genteel poverty trying to find happiness for the two children, Tom (Zachary Quinto), and Laura (Celia Keenan-Bolger), abandoned 12 years earlier by their telephone-man father.

This Amanda is stern, invulnerable, compromising in her attitudes only in the service of ultimately remaining uncompromising. To find specificity for a tall and imposing Amanda, Jones has chosen any number of tough-lady mannerisms--one of which is frequently holding her arms in front of her and slapping her right hand into the palm of her left. This Amanda has innumerable points she wants to make about living properly, and the gesture is how Jones has her drive them home. This is an unforgiving woman whose tyranny is only mitigated by an insistence on obtaining a contented future for her offspring.

The only time the hardened and aging belle reverts to butter-wouldn't-melt-in-her-mouth ante-bellum saccharinity occurs when Tom brings home gentleman caller James Delaney O'Connor (Brian T. Smith), and Amanda deems magnolia-scented charm the best approach to snare the young man as the only hope left for timid Laura. When it eventually appears the trap has malfunctioned, her instantaneous transformation to fury is chilling.

The triumph of director Tiffany's near-perfect realization of the Williams memory play is that, impressive as Jones is, she can't be designated the first among equals. She's working with three others who match her mood turn for mood turn. This is ensemble playing of high order.

Keenan-Bolger's Laura--walking with the slight limp that has her regard herself a cripple--looks throughout as if she's been unrelentingly startled by something. Her one passion is the glass menagerie of the title--a title also referring, of course, to the fragile Wingfield family.

But even Laura's collection--represented here by a symbolically significant unicorn and occasional pinpoints of light in a pool that set designer Bob Crowley places downstage)--doesn't truly delight her. Though it glows, thanks to a particular effect of Natasha Katz's lighting, Laura doesn't. Keenan-Bolger's understanding of Laura's despair precludes inner glow.

Embodying Tom--Tennessee Williams's stand-in, as Laura is the playwright's version of his sister Rose--Quinto sees to it that his character's deep-seated frustration is never fully suppressed. He plays Tom as a man constantly on the verge of climbing the walls, a caged animal of a man. Claiming whenever his claustrophobic surroundings get the best of him that he's going to the movies, Quinto indicates that Amanda is right to question the stated routine. This Tom is a man of unabated compulsions, and Quinto is superb at conveying as much.

Although Smith arrives late in the play as Tom's shoe-warehouse friend (Williams worked in a shoe factory, too), he quickly establishes himself as one-quarter of the acting accomplishments. Having forgotten that Laura was a high school acquaintance he called "Blue Roses" (a travesty of "pleurosis") and never aware of Laura's crush on him then, he fills in the lineaments of the likable schoolboy who's come nowhere near meeting the expectations he and others had for him.

The late scene during which he draws Laura out of her fears and even gets her to dance--a dance (movement by Steven Hoggett) during which the dainty unicorn becomes a factor--may be the most beautifully written in the play, and Smith leads it flawlessly. It's here, by the way, that Laura, seeing a possible change in her prospects, definitely does take on the beginning of a glow.

But maybe this romantic interlude--comparable to the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene and George and Emily at the soda fountain in Our Town?--isn't the play's highest peak? Not so easy to pin down, is it? When a revival is as well executed as this one is in Tiffany's hands--coming after his inspired one-man Macbeth (Alan Cumming) with co-director Andy Goldberg this past spring--something extra emerges:

Suddenly, the December 26, 1944 night when The Glass Menagerie bowed rises before you. The play feels newly minted, eye- and ear-popping in the tragic beauty of its poetry. Suddenly, the context in which the recollecting Tom places it--the Depression, the Spanish Civil War--flares anew. It's a remarkable feeling, a confirmation of the power of memory enveloping Tom throughout what he calls his "sentimental" reverie.

Is there nothing amiss on Tiffany's stage? The insertion of the above-mentioned pool is odd, as is the inclusion of only one tangible glass figurine. (The dots of light don't convey the scope of Laura's investment.) There are also times when Jones becomes a trifle pushier than absolutely necessary. The same goes for Quinto, whose Tom needn't collapse theatrically on the floor out of sheer distraction.

Also, in any Glass Menagerie, the out-of-fashion gown Amanda dons for the gentleman caller is always a costume designer's challenge. Crowley, getting everything else right, may not have imagined the precisely correct frilly number here.

More importantly, during his stunning opening monologue Tom mentions a portrait of his father in the St. Louis flat. Tiffany chooses to have it hanging on the invisible fourth wall where the Wingfields see it but patrons don't. At the play's end, Tom makes a comment about Laura blowing out her candles. It's extraordinarily touching, but again Tiffany has chosen to arrange things so that the line's effect is minimized.

These absences aren't minor but this realization of Williams's surpassing classic is nonetheless major.

It was when Tennessee Williams took him to see The Glass Menagerie that William Inge decided to become a playwright -- very much influenced, as it turned out, by his pal. That may partially explain the reference to Williams's Sweet Bird of Youth in Inge's Natural Affection that The Actors Company Theatre is reviving at the Clurman. Featuring Kathryn Erbe as mom Sue, Chris Bert as her paroled son Donnie and Alex Beard as her live-in lover Bernie, what's on view is competent production, directed by Jenn Thompson, of a not very good 1963 work. To celebrate Inge's centennial, the company might have revived one of the Kansas native's better plays. Trivia: TACT co-artistic director Cynthia Harris was an understudy for the original production.