John Tiffany is a magician. His powers of enchantment as a theater director can leave an audience spellbound. He can conjure thoughts, ideas, even people, out of thin air. His sleight-of-hand can make you think you’re revisiting a Tennessee Williams play you know better than all those other high school drama assignments. And then with a slight flourish, he takes your breath away.
Tiffany’s melancholy magic can be witnessed in The Glass Menagerie, Williams’ classic story of memory and familial responsibility, opening this Thursday at the Booth Theatre. This harshly beautiful rendition, which originated earlier this year at the American Repertory Theater, puts to shame all other recent Broadway revivals of American classics. The talent involved is staggering. Zachary Quinto plays Tom Wingfield, the man who returns home from his mindless factory job everyday to an overbearing mother and crippled sister. Tom is the Williams character who most resembled Williams himself – abandoned by a telephone repairman father who “fell in love with long distance”, and torn between providing for his family and providing for his soul. Quinto makes a strong narrator, his fierce and lonely gaze pointed up at the moon. But the chemistry with his stage family is what makes his Tom remarkable. How miserably he trudges up the fire escape steps, how visibly grateful he becomes to see his sister there.
Celia Keenan-Bolger, perfectly cast as Laura, imbues her every onstage moment with a quiet terror that makes her impossible to ignore. Childlike and dressed to look more so, her Laura is a delicate bird forever perched on a branch, able, perhaps, but refusing to fly. She is often subtly clenching an object nearby as if holding on for dear life. Her fragility provides a natural counterpoint to Cherry Jones’ imperiously charming Amanda. This tour de force performance combines adoration for her children with exasperation over their shortcomings. Although the Missouri drawl presents occasional challenges, Jones can play catharsis better than anyone. Her Amanda is motivated and haunted by the disappearance of her husband, for whom she interestingly appears to feel no anger.
His absence is a fact: accepted, unquestioned, like a dull weight. It seems redundant for Williams’ proxy narrator to mention the play’s father figure is its fifth character, but of course The Glass Menagerie does not shy away from symbols and its own affinity for them. The heavy-handedness works here; Laura’s tiny glass unicorn rests precariously in the hand of the gentleman caller (a superbly convincing Brian J. Smith) and the audience can hardly breathe.
The soft ache of these scenes is heightened by Nico Muhly’s deeply moving orchestral music. The same goes for Natasha Katz’s lighting, which in one striking scene shifts, during Amanda’s histrionic ramblings, to provide Tom a moment of tantalizing reflection. Bob Crowley’s set and costume, also excellent, are committed to scarcity rather than period detail, as befitting the semi-dreamlike, regret-infused abyss that is Tom’s struggle with the past.
Tiffany works with choreographer Steven Hoggett to create a distinct form of physical poetry that imbues the story with an almost surreal ambiguity. Expressive, unexpected movement during a moment of stillness in an otherwise ongoing scene beautifully physicalizes the act of reminiscence. (The same technique was deployed in the international sensation Black Watch, which depicted soldiers reading their loved ones’ letters with a gorgeous, unnerving sign language.) A raised hand, a slight stumble, a flick of the wrist reveals an inner depth at which Williams’ dialogue can only hint. It does help, of course, to have some of the most eloquent passages in the 20th century American theater canon. The play’s sumptuous, mournful coda – “For nowadays the world is lit with lightning” – is itself worth the price of admission.
Those of us who still consider ourselves “aspiring adults” must struggle with the idea that family obligation trumps all. At what point are we allowed to break free, to cross the line to personhood? That quintessentially American leap, from “should” to “could” to “would”, is etched on Tom’s face on that fateful night when the apartment lights go out, and his departure is a certainty. Laura, crippled far more by what the gentleman caller calls “an inferiority complex” than her bum leg, doesn’t seem capable of making that leap. To watch Celia Keenan-Bolger begin to consider the possibility, for the briefest of moments in the second act, is simply heartbreaking. For before we can indulge in the fantasy, with all its glittering glass fragments, we must first address the quiet torment of reality.