the occasional thoughts of a theater fan
If you had asked me over the years if I'd seen Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie," I would have answered "of course!," without hesitation; but this would have been an inadvertent misstatement. This play is such a part of the American theatre lexicon, that I assumed I must have seen it; hadn't everyone? But I now realize that the lovely new production of this classic play was my introduction of sorts and oh, what a first meeting it was...a perfect storm of talent and creativity that swept me away! It is fittingly referred to as a "memory play" in Willams' script, and for me, the memories I have of this production will surely last.
The American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.) in Cambridge, MA is the incubator for many a marvelous production that may or may not move to Broadway, but is likely to enrich the theatre world either way. The artistic director, Diane Paulus, seems to have a particular knack for seeing the past with new eyes. Witness the Tony® Award-winning revivals of "Hair" (from The Public Theater, for which she was Tony® nominated as the director), "Gershwin's Porgy and Bess" (at A.R.T.) and the current revival of "Pippin," (A.R.T.) opening on Broadway in April '13. I had seen her immersive, boundary-pushing rock musical version of "Prometheus Bound" at A.R.T. in 2010, and knew, no matter what else happened, I would be surprised and challenged.
So I did not hesitate to make the trip to Boston to see how Williams' famous work would be interpreted. The team assembled for the production definitely inspired confidence: John Tiffany as director ("Once" for which he won the Tony® Award, "Black Watch"), Stephen Hoggett ("Once," "American Idiot") doing the "movement" design (he does not refer to it as choreography) and a cast made up of Cherry Jones, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Zachary Quinto and Brian Jacob Smith.
As an interesting aside, the WBUR, Boston Public Radio website has a marvelous article about John Tiffany's condition for signing on: Cherry Jones (Tony® winner for "Doubt" and "The Heiress," and with many other stage and film credits) must agree to be Amanda, the determined southern matriarch struggling for survival during the Great Depression; a mother tightly woven into the psyches of her children. For her part, Cherry Jones wanted nothing to do with it. Thankfully for all of us, she changed her mind. Her Amanda is expansive and amusing; at her best when spinning the tales of her youth. We can see her as a carefree young girl with potential beaux lining up to fill her dance card, only to be brought harshly back to reality when she cruelly points out her children's failings to them, justifying her motives the whole time. Cherry Jones has a wonderful, throaty laugh, making it almost impossible to resist trying to understand the confounding Amanda. And her quieter, gentler moments with her children give us just enough insight into a mother's protectiveness to go with her on this journey.
Zachary Quinto ("24," "Heroes," "Star Trek," and multiple theatre credits) is Tom, Amanda's son and younger child, and sole breadwinner for the family. Tom is trapped in the suffocating world of the tenement apartment he shares with his equally suffocating mother and his beloved sister, Laura. As Tom, Zachary conveys the character's simmering pain and the depths of his regret from the first line; his low, considered drawl commands us to listen. I felt an urgency to the story, despite the measured cadence, and I knew I was in good hands with this storyteller. His tenderness with Laura and ambivalence with his mother softened the bitterness, and he moved easily between narrator and player.
It has been said that "The Glass Menagerie" is the most autobiographical of Tennessee Williams' plays, a subtext that makes the work all the more poignant, and lends an interesting layer to Tom's (Tom was Willams' real life given name) pent up frustration. While it is never discussed, Willams' homosexuality, perhaps a part of Tom's story, is a comfortable fit in the play, and in Zachary Quinto's portrayal of Tom.
Celia Keenan-Bolger ("The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," "Encores: Merrily We Roll Along," "Peter and the Starcatcher") is Laura, the emotionally and physically fragile daughter who finds peace, and her equilibrium, in her collection of tiny glass animals, represented in this production by a single glass unicorn. Celia's Laura is vulnerable, yet not without sparks of strength. She summons her courage against her mother's fury, as she defends her decision to secretly drop out of the dreaded business course in which her mother enrolled her. She also conveys a fragility that is not without awareness or determination. It is a satisfying laugh from the audience when, as soon as her mother leaves the room, she removes the "breast enhancers" her mother has insisted she wear to compensate for her regrettable "flat chest," and stuffs them away under the sofa cushion. But Celia is remarkably capable of moving us with merely a tightening of her jaw, or a far away gaze. I saw the show from the third row the first time, and halfway back in the theatre the next day, and Laura's silent pain was equally powerful from near or far.
The pivotal "Gentleman Caller," (Jim) who pulls Laura out of her comfort zone, if only for a brief moment, is played by Brian Jacob Smith, who has just the right affability and ease to convey the promise of a savior for Amanda, Laura and Tom. Jim's entrance into the action brings a relief of sorts; as if a dusty window was cracked to let in the sun, even if only for a minute, and Brian radiates good cheer and an athletic ease of movement. When Jim teaches Laura to dance, the chemistry between Brian and Celia gives us all hope.
It is Jim who called Laura "Blue Roses" during high school, after he misunderstood when she told him that "pleurosis," was the illness that had kept her out of school. As Amanda is given to rose-colored memories of her youth as the quintessential southern belle, it is perhaps appropriate that her daughter, who lacks the joie de vivre that her mother tells us often she had in abundance, has this somewhat melancholy nickname.
For Amanda, the flower of choice is jonquils. She describes being obsessed with collecting jonquils to bring home from outings as a young girl, despite her mother's admonition that there was no more room for them in the house. No problem, says Amanda, "I'll just hold them myself." She seems to have collected "gentlemen callers," with equal abandon, but ends up marrying an alcoholic who fails to live up to the expectations for providing a pampered and privileged life. Instead, he abandons the family early on and exists in the play only as an unseen portrait to which Tom, Laura and Amanda gesture in disappointment.
All of the weight of the family's survival is on Tom's shoulders. He grimly endures his existence working at the shoe factory (when he'd rather be writing poetry) by "going to the movies" each evening, to the chagrin of his mother who is appropriately fearful that it is not the movies that are providing Tom's entertainment. One of the most powerful (and darkly entertaining) moments in the show is when Tom finally snaps at his mother's haranguing, and acts out a laundry list of imaginary dire deeds and alter egos in accordance with her suspicions.
Amanda's desperate hope that Laura will, despite her physical and mental limitations, find a man to marry who will save her from certain institutionalization once Amanda is gone, drives the play. It is clear that Laura will not be able to hold a job, so marriage is her only possible haven, and Amanda is determined to conjure some southern magic to make it happen.
Tom is pressured to bring home a "gentleman caller" for Laura, and inadvertently brings home the only boy that Laura had ever recalled as an object of her affection (from afar during high school), who possesses all the requisite charm and kindness, but suffers from a fatal flaw that had escaped Tom's notice: he's engaged to someone else. Although Jim does not appear until fairly late in the play, his role in Laura's story is a crescendo, and the scenes between them are riveting.
There are those productions in which the set is truly another character in the show, with its own ability to interact with, and even speak for, the human characters. This is one of those shows. The series of angled, tiered platforms that make up the stage are isolated from the audience by an inky pool of liquid. The characters sometimes stand at the very edge of the stage, staring into this abyss; Tom even stops just short of touching the surface at one point. It represents the challenges faced by the characters, the unknown darkness of the future, the depths of memory and imagination and even the promise of distant hope. There is a soaring fire escape that rises into nothingness, and a sliver of a neon moon rising out of the water. Fittingly, there are no actual walls. Instead the walls are created for us by the actors, closed in by their despair and circumstances. This also gave a somewhat timeless quality to the story, allowing the focus to be on the universal themes of internal and external human struggle. Stephen Hoggett's "movement" continues this opening up of the story through the series of pantomiming actions performed occasionally by the actors; movements that only suggest activities such as clearing the table, lighting the candles or just wordlessly exchanging stylized touches. It was particularly effective in reminding us that the story is a memory being related by Tom, not a realtime telling. The lighting works its magic as well, as when the single tiny crystal unicorn reflects like a prism as Laura caresses it and holds it to the light. I felt as I was in a constant twilight of the mind.
I was fortunate to be able to see the show once in the evening, and then again the next day before I left Boston, at an early student matinee, after which there was a post-show discussion with the cast. It was fascinating to be a part of two very different audiences; the high schoolers were involved in a much more vocal way than the older audience the night before. I was particularly struck by their audible delight in Laura and Jim's kiss, only to be seemingly stunned into silence when the tragedy to follow became clear. Some of them had clearly studied the play prior to attending, and I heard some interesting discussion between a chaperone and some students about the choices the actors were making. I also spoke with one of the theatre's staff after the talkback, and he said that this is one of the reasons they make such an effort to hold these events for students, and that many of these schools had participated in others in the past. We both remarked at how, after an initial hesitation during the chat with the cast, hands were shooting up everywhere with questions; a true testament to the effectiveness of these actors and the creative team.
The moderator first asked about each actor's prior experience with the play and what had drawn them to this production. Celia had the least experience with the play, never having seen even the film (but had read the play in school). Her primary motivation for doing the A.R.T. production was the opportunity to work with John Tiffany and Stephen Hoggett. After seeing their work in "Once" and "Black Watch," she would have "gone anywhere," as far as necessary, to work with them, and was delighted that she had only to come to Boston. The chance to work with Cherry and Zachary was also key to her decision.
Zachary had read and seen the play, but it had not been his favorite Tennessee Williams work. He felt that, in this case, fate brought it to him at the right time in his life, after he'd had more life experience to bring to the role, and now found the play to be layered and complex in a satisfying way.
As it turned out, Cherry had auditioned for Laura six times during her career, but had never gotten the part. She laughingly attributed it to perhaps being too "big-boned," and not right for the fragile Laura. But she was clear that she had never wanted to play Amanda, and flatly refused when it was proposed. John Tiffany prevailed on her to at least read it again, and this time, she said, she saw something different and was hooked. She had previously seen Amanda as unappealing, annoying and overbearing. However, she then realized that, as a mother dealing with a child with limitations, she had no choice but to be a "locomotive" so that Laura didn't end up in an institution, and that energy drove everything she did.
Other questions asked by the students included the significance of the miming; of the set design feature of the pool; what part of the play was the most challenging for each actor and how the play is evolving over the run.
As far as the miming, the actors discussed John Tiffany having them do exercises to get in touch with how they would suggest the physical world as if they were experiencing it internally. Celia noted that the characters don't say everything that they're thinking, and the silent movement is a way to relate to their internal experience, and that it can be taken in different ways, so that there is no "right" interpretation. I enjoyed the Celia first responded to the student's query by countering "what did YOU think it meant?" Zachary also praised Stephen Hoggett's ability to integrate the movement into the action in such a meaningful way, and how it helped give an extra dimension as they were in rehearsal and developing their characters.
When asked about what parts of the play are the most challenging, Cherry immediately brought up Amanda's constant talking and frenetic energy. Personally, she said, she's a "slow" person and she was getting tired of hearing herself talk, and was fearful the audience would also find Amanda tiresome. She dealt with the challenge by working to convey Amanda's deep love for her children as the driving desperation. Celia's choice was the scene before the gentleman caller arrives, as it touches all of the character's vulnerabilities. She mentioned feeling a great connection to the character of Laura, which was a "great gift" as it doesn't always happen, and some roles require much more work to develop. Here, she felt that some part of Laura was just "in her" from the first time she read the script.
Brian talked about having to watch the other three be brilliant for the whole first act, and then coming on for the final scenes and feeling the pressure to "make himself useful" as he is walking up the fire escape for the first time to enter the action.
For his part, Zachary said that the biggest challenge for him was having to create nuances in his performance to suggest the character as an older Tennessee Williams relating to the audience and a younger Tennessee Williams relating to the other characters.
When asked about how the play is evolving, Celia said that the audience makes it different each time; this audience, for example, was very "vocal in a good way" and it made her braver and she tried some new things. She also mentioned that this production is an amalgamation of the three different versions of the play, the reader's, actor's and London versions. John Tiffany allowed them to adapt as needed, and Celia fondly referred to it as the "Cambridge version."
Brian also talked about each performance being different; case in point being the night before, when he went to take the prop stick of gum from his pocket to hand to Celia, and the gum wasn't there. He and Celia had to improvise around the missing prop. Having been there the night before, I can confirm that they did such a good job of covering, I didn't know until I saw it with the gum the next day!
Both Cherry and Zachary talked about how the openness of the set is a different approach to the play, and gives them more freedom to explore different options, leading to an evolution over time.
On a more practical note, one student was quite concerned about the glass unicorn prop that must break each performance, and how they dealt with it. Celia answered that, in fact, it doesn't usually break on its own and that she surreptitiously breaks off the horn most times, and that a new figurine is used every night.
For my part, I am hoping that they need many more tiny glass unicorns in the future (they will if the talk about this production moving to Broadway comes to fruition)...this "Glass Menagerie" deserves to be seen by many more audiences!