Who knew that black goo could be so beautiful? And who figured that the American Repertory Theater’s first production of a Tennessee Williams play, “The Glass Menagerie,” would be so extraordinary?
Director John Tiffany has made much of his desire to forget about Williams’s stage directions and go with the playwright’s production notes calling for a less naturalistic, more plastic theater. And even though I agree with him – all the bad productions of the play I’ve seen are mired in kitchen-sink realism – some of the things he said had me worried. Black goo lining the floor of the stage? Doing away with those stage directions? Honeycombs? Spaceships? The substitution of Nico Muhly’s minimalist piano and violin music for the old music on the gramophone?
Not to worry. Williams couldn’t have dreamed of a more mesmerizing design for a memory play. Among other things, Bob Crowley has balconies leading from the ground into distant space against a totally black background; a lone unicorn speaking for the entire miniature menagerie (and all the world’s lonesome souls); a stained couch that will be the bearer of a jaw-dropping piece of stagecraft, which I’m not going to spoil; the black goo (well, syrup) reflecting the scenery and characters. And by play’s end, Muhly’s music couldn’t be more appropriate. Natasha Katz’s lighting really is out of this world, creating an alien beauty that serves Tiffany’s intentions to a tee. And Williams’s. She metaphorically captures the spirit of the proclamation, “I didn’t go to the moon. I went much further.”
We are obviously within the mind of Tom, the narrator, recalling the events of living with an overbearing mother and painfully shy sister in a cramped apartment, and even that is being too literal. As Williams says,
“The scene is memory and is therefore nonrealistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart. The interior is therefore rather dim and poetic.”
That’s the important stage direction and Tiffany’s direction is as poetic as Williams’s instructions. The actors move about the stage with a rough-hued grace. (Steven Hoggett is in charge of movement.). Cherry Jones as Amanda, the mother, flits about the stage trying to summon an ancient charm; Brian J. Smith as the Gentleman Caller has the most self-assured bearing, though it’s his more hesitant moves that let you know all is not so perfect in his power-of-positive-thinking world; Celia Keenan-Bolger combines the elfin and simian beautifully in Laura, her pain palpable in every awkward step.
It’s Zachary Quinto, though, who commands this stage, which is only fitting considering it’s his character’s play. He makes you feel Tom’s desperation, his need to get out of the house and go to the movies and then to forget about the movies and light out for the territories. Hitting his friend with a newspaper, shoveling his mother’s food into his mouth, or merely putting his hands in his pockets, Quinto makes every gesture count toward the realization that he has to find an alternative to his soul-killing life, both at home and at the warehouse where he works with the Gentleman Caller, “the long delayed but always expected something that we live for.”
Jones walks a fine line between the exaggerated monster of Tom’s imagination and her own professed desire to make Amanda a sympathetic character, doing almost everything in the play for Laura’s benefit. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, though there’s more than a little payback in Williams’s recollections of his own mommie dearest and Jones sometimes seems uncomfortable at the outer edges of the character. Still, Williams was too good a playwright to make her a Gothic caricature and Jones seizes the openings he left to ennoble Amanda’s sacrifices.
This may be the first A.R.T. Williams production (at the Loeb Drama Center, through March 17), but it isn’t the first “Glass Menagerie” at A.R.T. Rob Orchard, now at ArtsEmerson, brought a very good Hartford Stage production to the Loeb. It was a fine blend of representational and nonrepresentational theater, leaning more toward naturalism.
In a way, this is old school A.R.T., leaning more toward the theater of dreams, a school that doesn’t ordinarily include Williams. Tiffany, though, lets you see that he’s a card-carrying member. That doesn’t mean there’s anything at all avant-garde about the production. Tiffany simply brings all the kinetic elements of stagecraft together to make this such a fully-realized, heart-rending production.
It’s the best production in the Boston area of 2013. It’s early days, but we might be saying the same thing next December. Tiffany workshopped his production of the musical, “Once,” at A.R.T. before it became such a hot ticket in New York. Maybe Diane Paulus can convince the producers to come back when the run is over there?
In the meantime, Tiffany gives us a “Glass Menagerie” to remember.
And keep your eyes on that couch.