New York City Theater
"The Glass Menagerie"
“I have tricks in my pocket – I have things up my sleeve,” says Tom Wingfield in the opening monologue of “The Glass Menagerie,” now in its sixth Broadway revival. ”But I am the opposite of the stage magician,” he continues. “He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”
Taking his clue from that speech, director Sam Gold fashions a production that has divided both critics and audiences, as the Tennessee Williams masterpiece did when first performed in its 1944 Chicago tryout. Instead of the usual soft shadows of poetic lighting and scenery that evoke a shabby St. Louis apartment, Gold and his designers give us flat lighting and a nearly bare stage. (In fact, the house lights are left on until the fourth scene.)
The play is the same, of course, a study of Amanda Wingfield (Sally Field), described in the script as “a little woman of great but confused vitality, clinging frantically to another time and place.” Loving her children, wanting them to succeed, she hounds them to distraction.
Son Tom (really author Tennessee Williams himself, played by Joe Mantello) works at a shoe factory, writing stories when he can, escaping to the movies, or so he says, when things get too stifling at home. Daughter Laura (Madison Ferris), a loaner, walks with a limp. (In this production, Laura is played by an actress confined to a wheel chair because of muscular dystrophy, throwing lines about her walking in the park into disarray.) The play’s fourth character is Jim O’Connor (Finn Wittrock), described as “a nice, ordinary young man” on whom Laura has had a crush since high school.
Especially because of the casting of Ferris, whose movements we watch with trepidation, the realistic rendering seems to counteract Williams’ having Tom say, “The play is memory . . . It is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.” But this is Tom’s memory; he recreates and controls what happens. Thus, the production starts with the four actors entering from the audience level, like four characters in search of an author.
At first, Tom alone mounts to the stage to give his monologue. He is both character and stage manager, introducing us to the scenery-less platform with its kitchen table and chairs, its Victrola and Laura’s minuscule collection of glass animals.
Then, the other three characters come into view (Laura with help from Amanda) and the play proper begins. The audience is made to use its imagination and forced, because of the bare stage, to contemplate the language and its consequences.
All the characters are conflicted, torn between independence and commitment, love and duty. When Amanda becomes shrewish, she quickly covers her mouth as if she wished she could shove the words back. Tom dearly loves his sister, even his mother and, in this production, sidles up to the handsome Jim.
Performed without an intermission, the two-hour production is absorbing. As Laura, Madison Ferris is sweet but no match for her more experienced colleagues. Mantello is very much the narrator, intellectually standing outside the play though building in anger cynicism and disappointment. Wittrock brings an edge to the seemingly bland Gentleman Caller. He plays him with the self-awareness of an idol whose feet are clay.
As for two-time Oscar winner Sally Field, her Amanda is a mass of contradictions. Delicate yet demanding, loving yet scolding, lonely yet determined, she skillfully limns a character of persistent strength, beholden to her girlish past and the husband who abandoned her.
Love it or hate it, this “Glass Menagerie” cannot be dismissed. In its fragility and nostalgia, it echoes the e. e. cummings line that Williams uses as an epigraph, referring to his sensitive sister: “Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.” The line is shattering. So is the play.
--David A. Rosenberg
April 17, 2017