Cherry Jones as Amanda Wingfield and Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura in <I>The Glass Menagerie</i>
Cherry Jones as Amanda Wingfield and Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura in The Glass Menagerie
©Michael J. Lutch

There's something oddly muted about director John Tiffany's rendition of The Glass Menagerie, which represents the American Repertory Theater's first foray into Tennessee Williams territory. True, this exquisitely honed "memory play" is a lot less florid than the bulk of William's oeuvre; however, it does trade in extreme emotions, very few of which are let loose in this production.

Bob Crowley's set--two modest rooms poised above a glistening pool of liquid that's black as despair, backed by a fanciful fire escape furling toward infinity–is too prettified to suggest the crushed hopes of the inhabitants. While Natasha Katz's intentionally dim lighting doesn't allow for the more subtle actions to extend far into the audience, the stylized movements imposed by choreographer Steven Hoggett limit spontaneity. In this airless, controlled environment, there's little room for strife, bitterness, and longing--the untamable elements that were Williams's stock-in-trade. The one true bonus to the creative team is Nico Muhly's transporting, allusive incidental music.

Cherry Jones would seem to constitute dream casting for the self-aggrandizing, self-deluding Amanda Wingfield, the embodiment of American can-do spirit. She natters, she nags; she wanders off into narcissistic reveries of her Southern belle past. Reined in, perhaps, by directorial constraints, Jones appears too reasonable, too grounded (physically and emotionally), right up to the end, when Amanda finally reveals her true colors. However, we should see the makings of this monster all along. While a Southern accent rolls easily off Jones's Tennessee-native tongue, she issues all her utterances with the same pouched mouth and her signature move is an exaggerated hand clap.

As Tom, the soon-to-be absentee son, who is both the play's narrator and an active participant, Zachary Quinto is variable as to accent, and also affect. At times, he's as sulky as an adolescent, but he never achieves the undercurrent of menace and unspeakable, urgent desire that the role requires. Clearly, Quinto's moves have also been set. He has an odd, unnatural manner of swooping into the action. Initially, for instance, he's required to "turn back time" by literally falling backwards.

Laura's entrance (best kept a surprise) seems to allude a playful hand at work, one which never fully materializes. Celia Keenan-Bolger is an inspired choice for the role, but the posture she's expected to maintain–hunched shoulders, limp hands–serves as a virtual straightjacket. Limited to acting with her eyes, she does so splendidly.

Brian J. Smith, as Laura's long-awaited "Gentleman Caller," is a veritable mistral of fresh air. Often this character, with his by-the-book self-improvement chatter, is portrayed as the most deluded of the bunch. Smith, however, lends him such joie de vivre, such untapped tenderness, that you fully trust his motives, and share in his high hopes.

Williams stated quite clearly that he didn't want a realistic play, but he didn't rule out realistic portrayals. While we've had our share of over-the-top Amandas and twitchy Lauras, there's probably a happy medium between under-emotive and extreme. Tiffany fails to find it. That the play still works at all is attributable more to Williams' original brilliance than to the gloss that Tiffany and his team have laid on.