Thursday, February 07, 2013

No Escape - A Story of One Family's Fragility - "The Glass Menagerie" at the A.R.T.

Last evening, the A.R.T. welcomed the critics for the official Press Opening of Tennessee Williams' classic drama, "The Glass Menagerie."  This production is directed by Broadway veteran and Tony Award winner, John Tiffany.  It was crystal clear to this audience member from the opening lines spoken by the play's narrator, Tom Wingfield, that this would be a special night within the dreamlike confines of the Loeb Theatre's Main Stage.  It seems as if that stage's last denizens - the cast of "Pippin" - as they decamped to Broadway, had left something of their spirit and ethos beyond.  They had not taken all of the Muses' inspiration with them to New York.  For there was magic in the air as Williams' poetry was brought to life by a stellar cast, undergirded by strong direction and by scenic and lighting designs that are transcendent.

Tom makes it clear in his prologue that the play represents not reality, but rather his memories of his family's struggles in St. Louis in the Depression.  The story is told as if those memories are evoked in a dream.  The simple and spare set creates a dreamscape upon which the human menagerie of fragile creatures play out their tragedy.  The adult children, Tom and Laura, long to escape to a different future; their mother, Amanda, retreats to the solace of her remembered salad days in the Mississippi Delta when she entertained as many as seventeen "gentlemen callers" in one glorious day.

The set, designed by Tony Award winner Bob Crowley, is really the fifth character in the play.  The Wingfield's flat is represented by three interlocking hexagons set at slightly different levels from one another.  The stylized Wingfield habitat is surmounted by a fire escape that plays a dual role.  At its lower levels, the fire escape is "practical," in that it enables access and egress for the actors as they interact between the cocoon of the home and the outside world.  At another level of meaning, the fire escape soars and telescopes into an infinite beyond - a "Stairway to Heaven," if you will, or Jack's magical Beanstalk.  Yet none of the characters ever ascends to the upper reaches of the fire escape.  Only Tom "escapes" the tedium of his life at home and in the shoe factory.  And his escape is a descent - both physically and morally - as he runs down the fire escape and runs out on his mother and sister to a new life.  In running away, he recapitulates the sins of his absent father, who was a "telephone man who fell in love with Long Distances"!  Jim O'Connor, the gentlemen caller,  cannot wait to head down those same stairs to escape from Mother Wingfield's manipulative attempts to trap him as a suitor for Laura.  The entire set appears to float just above a reflective, blackened pool of water, making it appear that all of the fragile and transparent action is transpiring upon a sea of glass.  The effect is electrifying.

Equally electrifying is the lighting design by Natasha Katz, another Tony Award winner.  Light is a crucial motif in this play, and the subtle changes of illumination throughout the two acts add to the sense of wonder, worry, anticipation and foreboding that cast shadows upon the drama.  Pin-point spots light up Laura's glass unicorn - a double symbol of her psychic escape into unreality and frailty.  A candelabra is used to great effect to punctuate the flickering fortunes of the characters.

The color palette of the set is a range of dusty roses and reds - emblematic, I imagine, of several key elements of the story.  Laura, during her high school years, had been given the nickname, "Blue Roses", by O'Connor when he misunderstood that she had been ill with pleurosis.  The mother, Amanda Wingfield, is in many senses a dusty and faded rose.  The rose colored sofa plays a significant role - doubling as a gateway as well as a symbol of both womb and tomb.

The cast is superb.  They are veterans of Broadway, films and TV.  Cherry Jones as Mother, is everything that this iconic character needs to be - and more. She is matronly, delusional, anachronistic, meddling,  jabbering, overbearing, over-protective - and unforgettable.  Zachary Quinto, recognizable as Mr. Spock in the 2009 Star Trek film, plays Tom with equal measures of passion and desperation.  Celia Keenan-Bolger shrinks into the role of the crippled Laura in ways that are wondrous to behold, coming to life briefly when Jim dances with  her to the music of the Victrola, only to sink back into a fugue-like state of desuetude when Jim reveals that he has a steady girl.  Brian J. Smith  as the gentleman caller sounds just the right notes of bravado and vulnerability.

Laura is physically crippled, but in truth, all of the characters are crippled in some way by their inability to live with present reality or to create a more hopeful future reality.  The writing has been long acclaimed as brilliant.  This current rendition of Williams' play adds a new depth to the pathos that is the story of the Wingfield family.

The play will continue to run at the A.R.T. through March 17.

American Repertory Theater - Glass Menagerie



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