Family Troubles: Reviving ‘The Glass Menagerie’

Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie” first appeared on Broadway in 1944, beginning what would be a wave of great American plays about troubled families. Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” and “Death of a Salesman,” William Inge’s “Picnic,” Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night” and Williams’s own “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” all treated their audiences to portrayals of the family home as prison, the parents as monsters and the young people desperately longing to escape. There were many more of these attacks on the mythology of the family, but these particular plays have become classics of American theater with numerous revivals on Broadway and other stages around the world. And this play might be the most lyrical of them all, with the poignant reflections and extravagant language of classical tragedy.

The play presents a grim view of the Wingfield family. The mother, Amanda, whose husband left her and the children, is almost manic in her efforts to achieve “success and happiness” for her children and save the family from financial and emotional ruin. Her restless son, Tom, is the breadwinner of the family, working at a shoe factory that he hates and desperate to escape the situation. Her daughter, Laura, is abnormally shy and unable to function in the outside world. The play’s action revolves around Tom’s and Amanda’s arrangements to bring a young man from the factory for a dinner and an introduction to Laura. The story is heavily autobiographical, based on Tennessee’s life in St. Louis with his domineering mother and his sister, Rose, who was emotionally quite troubled. (He omits the facts that, at the time the play is set, his father was still living with the family and he had an older brother, Dakin.)

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So why revive “The Glass Menagerie” once again? Could it be that the producers realized that they had found the perfect actors to match each of the four characters? The charismatic Cherry Jones embodies Amanda Wingfield, who, as she herself admits, is “bewildered by life.” Zachary Quinto creates a darker version of Tom and the ways he deals with his mother’s rants with a mix of morbid humor, anger and frustration while also feeling incapable of helping his sister whom he loves very much. Celia Keenan-Bolger plays Laura as a gentle but also playful young lady who is deeply self-conscious of the brace on her disabled leg and has retreated into a world of her glass animal collection. And Brian J. Smith offers a cheerful and self-confident version of Jim O’Connor, the “Gentleman Caller,” whom Tom describes as “an emissary from the world of reality” and a symbol of “the long-delayed but always expected something that we live for.” His presence throughout most of the second act brightens the onstage atmosphere with his optimism and his kindness towards Laura. He does not sense the irony of the situation when he expresses to Laura his belief that “the future will be in America…even more wonderful than the present time is!”

Cherry Jones is a marvelous Amanda with her energy and relentless but unrealistic optimism, sometimes daring to bring a comic touch to many of her speeches, especially when she appears in her elaborate cotillion gown from her much-younger days to greet the Gentleman Caller. In most of the play Amanda is a nervous, domineering mother. But when she recalls her days as a “restless and giddy” Southern Belle sashaying around the room at the Governor’s Ball and going on “long, long rides” in a world of dogwood and jonquils in bloom, Jones’s face glows so brightly and her voice becomes so melodic that we realize, if her stories are true, how sad her life has become.

All of this benefits from the work of John Tiffany, Tony-Award-winning director for “Once” (Best Musical), who seems to have recruited his other Tony-award winners from last year: Bob Crowley for scenic and costume design, Natasha Katz for lighting design, Clive Goodwin for sound design and movement director, Steven Hoggett. So why would we be surprised?

The staging of the production emphasizes that this is a “memory play.” The shabby living-room couch and the small dining table of the Wingfield’s apartment are the only furniture on stage, seemingly suspended in the darkness that surrounds them. At stage left, however, is a looming fire escape, which Williams’s directions for Scene One describe as “a structure whose name is a touch of accidental poetic truth” because these apartment buildings in their neighborhood “are always burning with the slow and implacable fires of desperation.” At the front and center of the stage stands a short table on which sits a glass unicorn, brightly lit throughout the play. The pools of light that surround each of the characters enhance the feeling that this is a nightmarish memory that haunts the older Tom. The background music throughout the play is a melancholy, softly tinkling piano. And between several scenes Laura is shown alone in the apartment, walking rather aimlessly through the living room while Tom, as the play’s narrator, looks on. Thus, one of his last remarks rings so true: “Oh Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be.”

When Amanda wonders why Tom goes to movies until the wee hours every night (which is probably a disguise for his sexual activities), Tom says that he goes to the movies so often to see the actors having adventures. But in truth he wants to have an adventurous life of his own. So, instead of paying their electric bill, Tom signs up with the Merchant Marines, causing the lights in the apartment to go out in the middle of the dinner with the Gentleman Caller.

The darkness and the candles that they light create a delicate and even romantic mood as The Gentleman Caller goes into the living room to visit with Laura, who has been emotionally unable to sit at the dinner table. We can see Laura coming out of her shell as Jim recalls their conversations in high school, where he was the Golden Boy as the school’s star athlete, president of the class and the leading man in the school’s musical productions—and worshipped from afar by his classmate Laura. With his words of encouragement and affectionate memories, she opens up enough to share with him her collection of glass animals. He gets her to dance and finally kisses her. But things do not go well after that, and the rest of the play is heartbreaking.

The one false note, in my opinion, is the Southern accent, almost a drawl, in Jim O’Connor’s voice, which, as a native St. Louisan myself, I can attest is not typical of the city’s residents. But it does enhance his charm and perhaps is meant to reflect not Laura’s ideal but Amanda’s memories of the “seventeen gentlemen callers” who she says visited her in one day in her debutante time of long ago and pretty far away. I also wish that they would have included the picture of the smiling handsome father, the “telephone man who fell in love with long distance” and left the family many years ago, which Williams’s stage directions suggest should be hanging on the wall and occasionally highlighted.

At one point in the play, Amanda says to Tom, “life’s not easy, it calls for—Spartan endurance.” She also says that “there are things in my heart that I cannot describe to you.” With these excellent performances, especially that of Cherry Jones, we completely believe both of those statements.

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