The Glass Menagerie

Most writers are taught to write what they know. Tennessee Williams took that advice to heart when constructing The Glass Menagerie, his breakthrough play and the most autobiographical work of his career, in which he presents the Wingfield family, matriarch Amanda and her children, Tom and Laura. Much like Williams’s own mother, Amanda is overbearing and disappointed in her children. Like Williams, Tom is a poet and a romantic, stuck in a dead-end factory job. (Williams had several punch-the-clock jobs before finding success as a writer.) And Laura is a tribute, almost, to William’s sister, Rose, who, like Laura, had a physical abnormality and was terribly shy. 

Fittingly, The Glass Menagerie is a memory play. As Williams wrote in the stage directions, “the scene is memory and is therefore nonrealistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated.” Tom, our narrator throughout, expands on this. He says, “I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” 

And so the action plays out on a reflecting pond, of sorts. Director John Tiffany (Once, Macbeth) remained faithful to Williams’s intentions for the play, stripping it of excess and artifice. His vision is wonderfully carried out by the design team, particularly scenic designer Bob Crowley (who also designed the costumes) and lighting designer Natasha Katz. Crowley’s set seems to float on water, a pool that reflects not the truth, but an impression, a representation of the truth, just as what Tom presents as his poetic interpretation and memory of the truth.

It takes a couple of scenes to get into the Wingfield’s drama, to notice the nuance and the choreographic language used in this sparse, unadorned production. The stripped down nature forces you to focus on the words; by taking away so much, you’re better able to see what is there. (Instead of props and more naturalistic goings on, several scene changes are, essentially, interpretive dances (nothing garish, I promise), with the characters’ deliberate movements (by Steven Hoggett (American Idiot, Once) fleshing out the details.)

Tiffany finds humor in the potentially melodramatic play (it is Tennessee Williams, after all), but the few effects that are used—subtle lighting, Nico Muhly’s underscoring—ground the production and punctuate the more serious parts.

Cherry Jones (a two-time Tony Award winner) acts with her entire being; every inch of her body and every sound that comes out of her mouth are Amanda Wingfield. Amanda is a woman who is stuck in the past and is unwilling to acknowledge the present. Jones brings great zeal to the role, masking Amanda’s bullying of her children with gusto and a desperate need to recapture her youth.

As her son, Tom, Zachary Quinto (making is Broadway, but not his NY stage, debut) is strong and playful, using specific and exaggerated movements to convey Tom’s inner monologue. Brian J. Smith appears effectively in act two as Jim, the gentleman caller. Jim, by the way, is described by Tom as “the most realistic character in the play,” but he, too, appears to be living in a fantasy world. He talks of his ambitions and public speaking classes, and while he may be from a world that is different from the Wingfields’, he always speaks as if he’s addressing an audience and not people.

Laura comes to life around Jim (after a little prodding (maybe, like another Williams character, Laura depends on the kindness of strangers?)), and here, Celia Keenan-Bolger shines. Keenan-Bolger (Peter and the Starcatcher, Merrily We Roll Along) makes Laura  so much more than what Tom remembers. She is quiet, gentle and inexperienced, but she is not the victim.

The time we spend with Jim and Laura is what really resonates. They talk about how we perceive ourselves, how our differences are actually what make us interesting. How the glass figures in Laura’s menagerie are stronger than you think; that they’re meant to be touched and you mustn’t be too precious about them. Though her shyness is usually crippling, talking to Jim emboldens her, and she learns to take chances. 

Taking chances doesn’t always pay off. Sometimes, “the traffic jars the shelves and things fall off them.” That doesn’t mean the broken pieces should be discarded or forgotten. These shards, this slivers of memories, stay with us and it’s the chances we took that we remember.