Huffpost Arts
Helen Eisenbach Headshot

Shimmering Glass

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2013-09-26-cherryjoneszachquinto.jpg

HOW DO YOU stage a play so that even audiences who have watched numerous versions feel they are seeing it for the first time? Make a piece set in the past by a long-dead playwright seem as if it were only just written? How do you have a drama whose outcome is already known to most viewers unspool suspensefully, reaching a climax that leaves them overcome with emotion without any warning it will happen?

You start by assembling a cast of four actors suited to their characters not only in their affinity for their roles but in the subtlety with which they imbue their portrayals -- as if each is not merely performing a part but slipping into the skin of a flesh-and-blood person. You have them focus on the emotional reality of their bonds -- the frustrations that come from living in too-close proximity and knowing one another too well, the desperation to flee the intimacy that has foreclosed but also enriched their lives. You make sure each plays her part as seamlessly as voices in a choreographed chamber piece, the balance allowing its music to come across with just the right rhythm and lightness and clarity.

Lightness is a strange word to use with a play that has always presented as a dark, masochistic classic as Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. Yet it's the light hand with which the current revival has been shaped that renders the work so affecting. Its magic unfolds as if with invisible artistry, though great precision and talent and care have gone into interpreting the script so that its finest elements shine through in the revelatory new Broadway production directed by John Tiffany.

There have been pleasures to be found in previous mountings of Williams' tale of a brother and sister trapped by circumstance and a mother who cannot relinquish her tight hold on her dreams for them. But I have never before seen one that doesn't make me aware of the play's limitations. If one of the four parts is not exactly right, the impact of the delicate, complex piece is muddied. If a director encourages the actors to underline the archetypical nature of the characters and story in messages writ large rather than letting the small, specific reality of its individuals plant themselves in audiences' imaginations, the spell is punctured. There has been a tendency to lean on the more obvious outlines of these characters: to portray Amanda Wingfield as a monstrous, domineering figure, unmodulated in her hysteria and iron hand; to present her children Tom and Laura as cursed by what fate has made them, doomed forever to be denied the love and happiness each yearns for; to show a Gentleman Caller who is more a symbol than a flesh-and-blood boy with quirks, ego and kindness. This Menagerie is concerned not with hyperbole but plain truth; not freighted with symbolism but carried aloft by its modest, intricate tale.

From the opening moments we are drawn in, thanks to the clarity of the framing device and the ingenious way Laura is first pulled into the story (and will ultimately be disappeared from it). Each element of the production -- set, lighting, music, movement -- feels both original and familiar. Even the unexplained mimed gestures around the table -- perhaps intended to remind us we are watching a memory piece, a phantom construction willed into being -- don't detract from our experience but add a strange pixie dust.

This Menagerie gives us a narrator recognizable as a contemporary young man with sarcasm and lyricism and a hunger to escape the prison of his life and the voice of his mother -- a voice he shares, both in its poetic turn of phrase and its ability to cut to the quick. We feel both this family's torments and its swelling hearts, even the infuriating Amanda, who has found in Cherry Jones an ideal channel.

Jones conveys not only Amanda's relentlessness, her inability to stop steering her children's lives but also her desire for their happiness, her belief that they are special even as her fear that they might not succeed makes her steal from them the right to make their own choices -- the air to breathe. The tale's tortuous family dynamic interweaves expectation and resentment with loyalty and love, the strivings, oppression and longings of its idiosyncratic characters made universal.

Zachary Quinto, that sly young Spock, is somehow both light on his feet and resonant, conveying depth and humanity and wit, his search for communion and self-fulfillment at once timely and true to his creator's era. (That gay Tom is played by a comfortably gay actor opens the door to let shame and dire consequences flee.) Quinto's physicality is but one fine note in a performance filled with them, a buoyant grace that dips low but never threatens to drown us. The way Tom lights up when describing the Gentleman Caller speaks volumes without his realizing it; his dark comic aria when confronting his mother about what he really does "at the movies" presents a symphony of simultaneous emotions. Quinto doesn't lean heavily on the melodrama, the dread of his captivity and desperation for release in corners furtive and vast. He wears his misery lightly, making room for hope.

As Laura and her imperfect suitor, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Brian J. Smith embody everything essential to their characters with beautiful understatement, providing precisely what is needed to quietly break our hearts. Like Jones and Quinto, they are at once real and evocative, solid and evanescent. There are colors in this production not seen before: the moment Jones reminisces about jonquils and suddenly becomes a shining young girl, devastating in her youth, her innocence, her excitement and spirit and joy. Jones' Amanda is not an unrecognizable monster but a fully human mother, as warmly loving as she is insensitive and controlling, forged by the hard lessons the world has taught her. Quinto's outsiderness is not a fatal curse but a force that has honed his powers of perception and intuition, sensitized him to those also braving life's challenges. When he discusses his troubles at work, transformed by a minor heroism by the Gentleman Caller, it's a hopeful story, not a pathetic one.

In past interviews Williams reminded us that Amanda actually had those 17 gentleman callers to whom she endlessly refers -- she was once a dazzling debutante at the center of the universe, not a self-deluded Miss Havisham. Her desperation to ensure her children not echo her mistakes comes from having squandered her wealth of options by falling in love with a man for his pretty face, a man who ran away. There are remnants of that man in his son, but when Tom escapes he takes his family with him, even as he seems on the brink of getting free. He carries them inside him. His love for the sister whose terrors have paralyzed her will pierce through any happiness he finds for the rest of his days.

Tom's bond with the mother who tyrannizes with her expectations feels less oppressive here, as if in this one aspect he is released. The play doesn't feel predetermined or melodramatic but clear-eyed, simply told. The measured pace of the direction and its moments of silence -- the perfect calibration of every facet of the production -- allow the language to breathe and so ascend to its full killing beauty.

Tennessee Williams may be our greatest American playwright, though he is too often overlooked when the standard pantheon of masters is trotted out for garlanding: Miller, O'Neill, Mamet. Williams better than anyone knew how to capture the plight of the artist, the outsider, anyone hungering for meaning in a world circumscribed by harsh economic truths and the necessity for numbing labor, a daily life that flattens out impulse and individuality and squelches creative expression. Perhaps his gifts have been discounted because he eschews the posturing macho self-aggrandizement that has earned others their crowns. Unlike playwrights obsessed with power and consumed with contempt for anything that smacks of the unmanly -- the vulnerable, the emotional, the figuratively and literally female -- Williams addresses the plight of those of us who aren't brutes: the outcasts; tenderhearted, sensitive, struggling, flawed humans; dreamers chasing after and confronting the diminishment of our dreams. Like David Cromer's indelible production of Our Town, John Tiffany's Glass Menagerie strips away everything but the pure searing soul of its writer and his story, and gives us an experience certain to linger in memory forever.

Photo by Michael J. Lutch