CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Some people are shocked to hear that for the first time in its 30-year history, the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge is producing a play by the great Southern writer Tennessee Williams. But director John Tiffany is thrilled for more than one reason: because he gets to do it first and he gets to do “The Glass Menagerie.”
“It’s my favorite play,” he explained during a recent rehearsal. “Well, Tennessee Williams I suppose is the reason why, because if he hadn’t written such a heartbreaking, aching masterpiece it wouldn’t have burrowed its way into my very being and made me desperate to direct it, although I never have before.”
And the A.R.T. was desperate to have Tiffany come back to Cambridge after he successfully led the theater’s 2012 production of the Tony Award-winning musical “Once.” So he made a proposal: he’d return to direct his favorite play, but only if Cherry Jones agreed to join the cast.
Tiffany remembers getting all fired up about the idea after meeting the Southern actress for lunch.
“Cherry had just come back from Tennessee where she’d been clearing out her mom and dad’s house,” Tiffany recalled. “And she found some letters that her mom had written. She started quoting from them and this kind of Southern voice came out. Suddenly I thought: Cherry Jones, Amanda Wingfield.”
Cherry Jones has starred in a slate of films, shows and plays, including “Doubt” on Broadway and the Fox series “24.” Amanda Wingfield is the devoted but overbearing mother in “The Glass Menagerie.” The faded Southern belle was abandoned by her husband, and it’s an iconic role.
But there was a problem: Cherry Jones wanted nothing to do with it.
“Never in my entire life,” she exclaimed, admitting she’s never been a fan of Williams’ first successful play.
“I think because I’m Southern I never found anything exotic about it and I just found it very sad,” Jones said. “And also, as I’d usually seen it played — because I have seen it four times — I found it suffocating.”
All of the action takes place in Amanda Wingfield’s tiny St. Louis apartment after she and her family moved there from Blue Mountain, Miss.
So how did director John Tiffany finally convince Jones to get on board?
Arm-Twisting An Actress
“Ah, I just put a gun to her head,” Tiffany joked. “No, the arm twisting I suppose was saying to her, ‘Well, let’s do a reading — a very, very private reading.’ ”
“I kicked and screamed right up until the day we did the reading,” Jones confessed.
In fact, the career actress believed she’d thrown away all of her drama school copies of the play years ago.
“When John kept harping about Amanda and ‘Glass Menagerie’ I finally went looking through my apartment to see if there was one leftover script,” Jones said. “And I found a book that I had brought up from my family home in Tennessee after my parents had died and my sister and I had cleared out our family home. My mother was an American and English lit teacher, and I found this first edition of ‘The Glass Menagerie’ that had belonged to my mother.”
And when Jones made that discovery she thought, “This might mean something.”
After doing the reading with Tiffany, the actress could see just how autobiographical the play is. Amanda Wingfield is based on Williams’ own mother, Edwina.
“I realized that coming from Paris, Tenn. — which is placed right in the middle between St. Louis and Blue Mountain, Miss. — that I had grown up as a young child in the 1960s with women who were exactly Amanda Wingfield and Edwina Williams. So I understood the language, I understood the dialect, the customs, the formalities.”
And Jones finally understood the play’s poetic writing and structure.
“And then I was hooked,” she said.
The Iconic, Domineering Mother
“We forget that it’s part of a director’s job to woo actors to a project,” A.R.T. artistic director Diane Paulus said over the phone. “And gosh, we’re so thankful that Cherry is doing this. Not only is she magnificent in this role, but to welcome her back to the A.R.T. after she spent so many years here as a founding member, and doing over a decade of shows at our theater.”
Jones joined the A.R.T. in 1980 and still calls it her professional home. Paulus doesn’t blame Jones one bit for being reluctant to play Amanda Wingfield.
“Of all Tennessee Williams plays it’s such a part of our cultural iconography,” Paulus said. “And certainly Amanda, as this domineering mother, is such a part of our cultural landscape.”
The plot of “The Glass Menagerie” revolves around Amanda’s fraught relationship with her fragile daughter, Laura, and her conflicted son, Tom, played here by Zachary Quinto. You might know Quinto from his role as Spock in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” or the AMC series “American Horror Story: Asylum.” Quinto said working on this production has opened his eyes to “The Glass Menagerie,” too.
“You don’t realize what a beautifully formed play this is, what the structure of this play is, and how it’s magnificent in a way that a lot of people take for granted,” he said.
And while this iconic, needling mother can be harsh — take the scene where Amanda says to her son Tom, “That’s the tragedy of you.”– Jones has been mining the sympathetic side of Williams’ character.
“He creates a character who has been abandoned by her husband, has reared two children by herself, in the north,” Jones described. “She somehow survives the 1920s without being destitute and then the depression hits. Tennessee never, ever, ever discusses that survivor part. It didn’t serve his purposes to think about that part of Amanda, but it serves mine.”
Click play below to hear more from Zachary Quinto on Tennessee Williams: