The Glass Menagerie, American Repertory Theatre, Loeb Drama Center,Cambridge, through March 17. 617-547-8300 or amrep.org.
The unicorn loses its horn in the “The Glass Menagerie” (1944), but this early masterwork about human fragility remains as indestructible as ever. Tennessee Williams always probed the loneliness of lost souls- gay and straight- better than any other American playwright. His poetic insight about what he called “the huge middle class of America matriculating in a school for the blind” resonates as strikingly today as it must have for survivors of the Great Depression. Now American Repertory Theatre, amazingly exploring Williams’ lushly lyrical world for the first time, has tapped the poetry and plumbed the heart of this great memory play in a revival as luminous as its title.
Out director John Tiffany—who worked on the Tony Award-winning musical “Once” at the A.R.T. Institute-captures the poetry right away in the revival’s evocative set. Designer Bob Crowley–taking his cue from Williams own description of the play’s apartment as “one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living-units”–has created adjoining hexagonal set pieces for Amanda Wingfield, son Tom and daughter Laura. The high-rising fire escape- both entry to the often grim tenement and exit to the possibilities of the outside world- becomes a silent but ever-present witness to the alternating hope and despair that dominate their respective inner lives. Natasha Katz’s muted lighting complements the relative harshness of their living conditions.
The play’s inner life, as always, begins with remembering narrator Tom. Like Thomas Lanier Williams III himself-as Williams buffs know, Tom is a poet at heart. While feeling imprisoned in a kind of “nailed-up coffin” of an existence living at home and working at the Continental Shoemakers warehouse, he longs for adventure and speaks of joining the Merchant Marine. Tom-though never explicitly identified as gay–eems to be satisfying his quest for adventure late night at the movies. He does speak of meeting strangers and alerts his mother “I could tell you things to make you sleepless.:”
At the same time, Tom does bring home Jim,The Gentleman Caller-his work buddy- to meet his shy sister Laura. In Tiffany’s staging, out actor Zachary Quinto good-naturedly touches Brian J. Smith’s genial, expansive Jim in a manner that suggests feelings of bromance-at least on his part. Jim may have no reciprocal feeling, though Tom later speaks of not knowing that Jim is engaged. Is this engagement a cover? Williams never says so. At any rate, Quinto vividly develops Tom’s frustration about his personal life- especially as he pushes back in rage at his mother’s domineering. Still, he never over-play’s Tom’s sense of being ‘other ’ at work and in life. Quinto may sometimes move in and out of Southern accent, but his portrait smartly balances Tom’s ongoing self-concern and sibling caring in both memory narrative and exchanges with family and Jim.
If Quinto brings full authority to the role of Tom, out premier actress Cherry Jones (deserved Tony Awards for “The Heiress” and “Doubt“) —too long absent from A.R.T.—demonstrates why Amanda is one of the American theater’s most coveted parts. Both grandiose and loving, Amanda is neither angel nor devil but rather a well-meaning if overbearing mother and Southern belle finding haven in her own memories. Audiences are likely to sympathize with her well-intentioned Amanda even as they understand why her telephone company–employed husband fell in love with long distance. Jones sashays with great spirit in Amanda’s vintage cotillion dress–credit double threat costumer Crowley—and brings boundless heart to her protective gestures and movement with her children. Jones is so commanding that even Amanda’s telephone routine trying to persuade magazine subscribers to renew should be studied by budding actresses. It is not too soon for A.R.T. to line her up for revivals of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “The Night of the Iguana” in future seasons.
Celia Keenan- Bolger is an arresting study in contrast as Laura. Turning in one of her feet yet never overdoing Laura’s physical challenge, she finds the reclusive daughter’s diffidence as well as her full absorption in her glass animal collection. Keenan-Bolger is most persuasive in the second act as Laura gradually opens up to Jim in recalling high school and ‘Blue Roses’-his variation on the word ‘pleurisy.’ Smith has the right confidence as the public speaking and electrodynamics- studying Gentleman Caller. His evocation of Jim’s athletic agility and charm give subtext to Quinto’s crush-suggesting body language as Tom.
At the end of the play, Tom seeks respite from his memories. Audiences should embrace them. Somewhere Williams must be smiling in approval of A.R.T.’s shimmering “The Glass Menagerie.”