The 17-week limited engagement of John Tiffany's critically acclaimed revival of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie officially opens at the Booth Theatre on September 26. The production marks the return to the stage of Tony, Drama Desk, and Emmy winner Cherry Jones, who costars as one of Williams' most memorable creations, Amanda Wingfield, the mother of crippled and shy Laura, played by Celia Keenan-Bolger (Peter and the Starcatcher) and Tom, portrayed by Zachary Quinto (Angels in America). Brian J. Smith (The Columnist) is Jim, the Gentleman Caller. With costars she calls "family" and a production she says getting to work on "would bring Lazarus back from the dead," it's easy to see why Cherry Jones would want to be a part of this dream-like production, but it still took the determination of a director and the melodic language of a man named Tennessee to woo this actress back to New York (with a stopover in Boston).
The Courtship of Amanda Wingfield
"The Glass Menagerie is one of my favorite plays," explains director John Tiffany, "however I never thought it and I would meet. Then, as pure coincidence would have it, I met Cherry, who'd just returned from Tennessee. She was speaking in this voice and I thought to myself, ‘Is that Amanda Wingfield, I hear?'"
Tiffany took Jones aside and told her she was his Amanda. She replied, "No, I'm not! I'll be your something else, but not your Amanda." It was a role Jones had resisted playing, but Tiffany wouldn't take no for an answer."It took a while, but John hogtied me into doing a reading. I was a goner. I couldn't believe the beauty and power of the play. It's amazing that for a play over sixty-eight years old, it's so fresh and contemporary."
Regarding the St. Louis widow, trying to make ends meet by selling magazine subscriptions, Jones says there's much to admire in the character. "Amanda's a woman on a mission. She loves her children and cares so much about Laura, this child who seemingly can't survive on her own. She's concerned about what will happen to her after she's gone. Amanda's determined to equip her socially or marry her off to a man who'll take care of her. Though ill-equipped for the task, to me, she's a great heroine."
Jones said she'd been resistant to playing Amanda "because I lacked the experience and depth to understand what a masterpiece it is. Now, into my fifties, a woman of a certain age, I understand what a gift it is, what a masterpiece it is, and a deeply emotional experience." It was the combination of the text, what time does to the soul, and her duty to her Southern roots that finally drew Jones to Amanda."Even though I was born [in Paris, Tennessee] one hundred thirty-six miles due north of Blue Mountain, Mississippi [the fictitious hometown of Amanda Wingfield]," she says, "I've never played a Southern woman. It's about time."
Portrait of an Artist
"Tennessee wrote so true to the poetry and melody of Southern women of the '40s," says Jones. "I grew up with those women — the church-choir mistresses, the ladies who taught piano — and they all sounded the way Tennessee captured Amanda Wingfield." In addition to the lyrical sense Williams captured in his dialogue, there's a depth of raw feeling, a fragile quality to Menagerie that he acknowledges right at the top of the play. Jones immediately observed this emotional language. "[Tennessee Williams] pitches emotion and remembrance from the very moment Zach Quinto as Tom steps from the shadows and addresses the audience," she says, quoting the play: "‘Yes, I have tricks in my pocket. I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion. To begin with, I turn back time…The play is memory.'"
In the playwright's production notes, Williams wrote: "Being a ‘memory play,' The Glass Menagerie can be presented with unusual freedom of convention. Because of its considerably delicate or tenuous material, atmospheric touches and subtleties of direction play a particularly important part. Expressionism and all other unconventional techniques in drama have only one valid aim, and that is a closer approach to truth."
According to Jones, Tiffany has exceeded Tennessee's expectations. "Regardless of how well we do, how well we serve or do not serve Tennessee, the production's a true illumination." Tiffany has reported that there've been complaints about how he's "stripped the play bare and made the production very minimal." He explains that he has only been true to what Williams wanted. Jones agrees. "There's nothing radical about it. John just opens it up. With the contributions of Bob Crowley [sets and costumes], Natasha Katz [lighting], and Steven Hoggett [movement direction], it's simply exquisite. You feel it seep into your breastbones. I only wish Tennessee was alive so he and John could meet…This production is the most beautifully realized production I've had the privilege of working on in thirty years of theater."
Time is the Longest Distance Between Two Places.
Though this production was originally staged at the American Repertory Theater, where Jones was a founding member, she quickly points out, "New York isn't a carbon copy of what we did at A.R.T. Nothing can be when there've been five months in between. Everybody's lived five months. The last A.R.T. performance was St. Patrick's weekend. What we're trying to do is to make sure that the ‘improvements' that have been made are, indeed, that."
She also explains how often she's thought of the impact being cast in the original Broadway production must have had for the legendary Laurette Taylor. "She'd come out of the haze of ten years of alcoholism, and was resurrected as a star." Taylor had been a celebrated actress from 1909-1938 and came out of retirement at Williams' and directors Eddie Dowling and Margo Jones' request to star as Amanda Wingfield for the run of the play. She died four months after the closing. She was only 62.
As for her costars in this production, Jones has nothing but praise and awe. "You couldn't ask for actors with more depth and understanding," emphasizes Jones. "We quickly bonded into a tight-knit family. Their artistry is wonderful. The four of us have become joined at the hips. Since from before Christmas at the table-work here through rehearsals in Cambridge in January, we've been like puppies in a box. Coming back into this, literally, we've been shedding many tears. We're just pinching ourselves that this is where we've landed. We feel like we're home. We're living the play…This [play] is the perfect homecoming. It's beyond my wildest dreams."