ART Offers a Surreal Take on Williams

The main stage at the American Repertory Theater was off balance when lights came up on “The Glass Menagerie.” The right side was set with spare trappings of faded middle class comforts—a sofa upholstered in dated red fabric, a living room table with straight-backed chairs, a folding paper screen, and a phonograph. The left side was dominated by a dizzying series of fire escapes, stumbling and zigzagging upwards, half-illuminated by blue light. Eight stories were visible, shrinking as they approached the ceiling of the theater. The sense that the fire escapes carried on into the cosmos was difficult to escape, especially as Tom Wingfield, the narrator and uneasy protagonist of Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie,” took to the stage in his opening monologue and—twirling for a moment with his back to the audience, arms raised upwards at the infinite fire escapes—declared it to be “a world of reality that we were somehow set apart from.”

Director John Tiffany found a balance between a cut-and-dry interpretation of “The Glass Menagerie”—now playing at the ART until March 17—and his own bent towards shock and awe. In doing so he gracefully translated Williams’s classic work onto the modern stage. This smack of the surreal Bob Crowley's set design found its match in the direction as Tom (Zachary Quinto) introduces his sister Laura (Celia Keenan-Bolger). Tom reaches into the back of the sofa, pulling thin white arms out from between the cushions, followed by a silent Laura. Laura’s appearance from within the couch cushions was breathtaking, and as off-kilter as the stage. This intriguing moment was in keeping with the script—for Tom, Laura is relegated to memory—as her character is so ingrained in the apartment that it makes perfect sense for her to materialize from the furniture like a summoned ghost. After the initial theatrics, however, Tiffany decides not to play up moments of shock, instead choosing to play a longer, subtler game which perfectly complements Williams's tense and slow-moving script.

Quinto, of the 2009 film “Star Trek” and the television show “Heroes," plays Tom as a fascinating mix of petulant and knowing—caught between an irresistible desire to escape and an instinctual drive to be with his family that, for most of the play, kept him at his harping mother’s side. Quinto often translates these conflicting impulses kinetically; he walks either with intense energy or drags his feet with marked inefficiency, his shoulders bunched around his neck in a motion of aggressive self-concealment. Many times he seems to be on the verge of physically lashing out, even during the rare moments he had to himself on the stage.

Against his foil of static aggression, Quinto’s counterparts, Cherry Jones (who plays Amanda Wingfield) and Keenan-Bolger, both succeed in rendering their characters with subtlety and emotional honesty. The fourth and last member of the cast, Brian J. Smith (who plays Gentleman Caller, Laura’s long-awaited suitor) is less successfulhe was seemingly unsure of how earnestly to play his part and ultimately settled into a wholesome, jocular interpretation that left him little room to explore the complexities of Williams's characterization. Keenan-Bolger is stiff-legged and shell-shocked—every motion seems to have been wrenched painfully out of her. She delivers her lines with a wide-eyed openness somehow absent of innocence and presents Laura as a character too damaged by shyness and her sheltered lifestyle to seem pure. Cherry Jones, a Tony Award-winning actress and a founding member of the ART, is stunning in the role of Amanda Wingfield. When speaking with her children, Amanda relies on a mix of maternal wheedling and brute force to have her way. There is a raw edge of desperation that cuts beneath her words—a kind of deep need that manifests in unrelenting action and vivacity. As she plays up her aging Southern belle mannerisms for laughs or cleverly snipes with Tom, Jones employs a stream of constant energy to act as insulation for Amanda’s complex psychology.

In the few moments when Amanda is not nagging her children and instead turns her attention to her magazine customers, Jones reveals the true force of her acting abilities—she captures the contradictions and vulnerabilities that mark Williams’s depiction of Amanda Wingfield. In two separate scenes, Amanda cajoles her customers, delivering the righteous, overly sympathetic line, “You’re a Christian martyr, that’s what you are. A Christian martyr," waiting for the women to agree—to fall in line underneath her heavy-handed manipulation. But when she fails at this, Jones’ acting abilities are most finely-tuned—she quickly flicks discouragement off her face, carefully replacing the set look that she relies upon to carry her through her life, which, as she says towards the end of the play, “has a way of turning out so badly.”

On the whole, Tiffany’s “Glass Menagerie” is marked by dabs of the experimental, but, in the end, is a faithful and classic production of Williams’s piece. The strength of the cast, especially the phenomenal Jones, undoubtedly carries the show, while the innovative set design and occasional touches of the absurd add a modern flavor that illuminates the stranger facets of Williams’s seminal work.

—Sorrel L. Nielsen can be reached at sorrelwestbrook-nielsen@college.harvard.edu.

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