You’ll Be Transfixed by The Glass Menagerie Even if Not Theatre-Minded (5 stars)
by Johnny Monsarrat
The Glass Menagerie: Presented by the American Repertory Theatre. At the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge. Written by Tennessee Williams, directed by John Tiffany. Set & costume design by Bob Crowley; Lighting design by Natasha Katz; Sound design by Clive Goodwin; Casting by Jim Carnahan and Stephen Kopel; Music by Nico Muhly; Dialect Coach Nancy Houfek; Production Stage Manager Chris De Camillis, Movement by Steven Hoggett. Starring Zachary Quinto, Cherry Jones, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and Brian J. Smith. Through March 17 at the Loeb Drama Center, at www.amrep.org.
You hardly need to read this review if you’re a regular theatre-goer. The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams, is one of the most famous plays of all time, produced by an impeccable venue and featuring a cast that includes Emmy and Tony award-winning actress Cherry Jones (Doubt, 24) and television and film star Zachary Quinto (Heroes, American Horror Story, Star Trek). If you’re “of the people” like I am, you may feel a bit wary. Just the title “The Glass Menagerie” sounds imposing and very serious.
Fear not. The word I’d most use for my reaction is “transfixed”. My mouth went dry because it was open too much during the performance from awe. From the opening line to the stunning conclusion, we are led through the pathos of a family in the Great Depression of the 1930s. They are desperate to struggle and survive, but they don’t quite know how, which causes tension between a woman, a daughter, and a son who share a common cause but are so tortured by poverty that they can’t ally with each other. The father is long gone, the mother overbearing, the daughter crippled and painfully shy, and the son trapped between fantasy and reality. Ultimately they cause as much trouble to each other as the world brings them. The underlying question of the play is this: can they emerge from their situation, perhaps by finagling a gentleman caller with money to romance the daughter away?
To me, Celia Keenan-Bolger stole the stage, even though her role as shy daughter Laura had the fewest lines. By turning her limbs inwards she conveyed an awkwardness that was physical as well as mental, and instead of going limp (which would have shown a simple submissiveness), we saw the conflict inside her. At times she appeared to have given up, but at times she clearly was fighting with herself to know what to do. Cherry Jones, as the mother, Amanda, showed an impressive range from little touches such as licking her hand and using it to clean a spot off the table, all the way up to shouting in a way that conveyed exasperated love rather than meanness. She provided much of the humor in the subtle ways she sought to push her children around while keeping on a bright smile for their eventual visitor, the Gentleman Caller, played by Brian J. Smith. Zachary Quinto, playing the son Tom and also the narrator, withheld just enough affection in his body language and tone of voice that we couldn’t quite decide whether he was the good son earning a paycheck to keep the lights on for his family, quite likable, or a copy of his father, ready to abandon his mother and daughter and easy to hate. The guarded way he behaved with his family starkly contrasted with his relaxed posture and joking tone of voice with his friend from work. It demonstrated more than anything that at least for Tom, happiness is possible, outside in the world.
The most challenging scene in the play must have been the scene where Laura, the daughter, got a chance to speak privately with the Gentleman Caller. It being their first meeting, it couldn’t be anything but awkward, and yet Keenan-Bolger and Smith displayed a remarkable chemistry in their eye contact and were completely convincing in their gentle physical reactions to each other. The times that Keenan-Bolger stared into her glass figurine she did it with an intensity that showed she was gone from the world into a dream. Could the mother, could the son, could the gentleman caller bring her back?
While far from a comedy, the play had quite a bit of humor — and kudos to set and costume designer Bob Crowley. The worn dresses that the mother and daughter showed off for their fancy dinner spoke more strongly than anything else in the play to how delusional the family was about the disconnect between their aspirations and their abilities. The stage itself was dominated by a towering metal fire escape that ascended to the heavens yet surely represented how low the family was. Surrounding the stage Crowley placed a pool of water, perhaps representing the dreamscape the family hoped to reach. In that dreamscape was embedded the Moon.
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a play more intense and yet with every note a perfect representation of who the characters are and where they are going as the plot proceeded. Achieving both subtlety and power, the production deserves more than five stars. It deserves my rare exhortation: JUST GO. And take it from a guy who is excited about the new Die Hard movie opening this week: even if you’re not theatre-minded, you need to see this show. As a treat, hang around afterwards and you may get to meet the cast.
For more information, see www.amrep.org.