Sarah Paulson and Jessica Langein The Glass Menagerie(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange
in The Glass Menagerie
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
The Glass Menagerie initially astonished Broadway first-nighters on March 31, 1945, almost exactly 60 years ago. Theatergoers who saw the work during the premiere run are still talking in reverent tones about Laurette Taylor's performance as Amanda Wingfield, the fading Southern belle who's trying to do right by her adult son and daughter in limited circumstances and with painfully alienating maternal strategies.

In the introduction to the published script, Tennessee Williams -- who put himself on the map as a major metropolis with this play -- referred to Taylor's "extraordinary power." During the section of Rick McKay's Broadway: The Golden Age that's devoted to Taylor, a number of still-awed professionals fumble around trying to explain what made her Amanda Wingfield such an unforgettable portrait. The best that one of them can do is to say that Taylor didn't seem so much to be acting as to have miraculously become a real Amanda who had wandered in off the street.

Playing the now-classic character, Jessica Lange also seems to have wandered in off the street, direct from an acting class presided over by a proponent of the François Delsarte method of indicating techniques. Whereas Taylor mavens exult six decades later, patrons exposed to Lange's interpretation are likely to discuss it for at most an hour and then put it behind them as a forgivable lapse in a largely distinguished career. After all, Lange has already done reputable turns on Broadway as Blanche DuBois in Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire (which I didn't see) and in London's West End as Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night (which I did see and thought intelligent work despite her Katharine Hepburn intonations). As Amanda, however, Lange is stumped. Every movement she makes -- constantly fluttering her hands up to her cheeks, for instance -- looks as if it's been plotted on a chart that she keeps in her dressing room. She gives the impression of having decided during rehearsals how she should inflect each word, including "and," "but," and "the." The Southern accent she uses could be lifted from the How to Do Tennessee Williams handbook. It's as if she applies the role from the outside, along with her make-up and David Brian Brown's red wig.

Because nothing about the performance comes across as natural, Lange is fatally off-putting as a woman whose underpinnings of humanity need to be evident in order for her to be not only tolerated and understood but forgiven. Throughout the play's seven scenes (presented here in two acts), famous sequences are underdone by being overdone. The two monologues in which Amanda tries to drum up magazine subscriptions from local ladies lack heartbreak. Amanda's reminiscences of gay youth in the well-known speech about jonquils is so much nattering; Lange delivers the aria wearing what set and costumer designer Tom Pye hopes to pass off as a cotillion gown, though it's noticeably too short. (Perhaps she mentioned that she'd like to show off her legs.) The only time Lange's Amanda comes briefly to life is when her son Tom -- played by Christian Slater, the much publicized replacement for Dallas Roberts -- finally attacks her verbally. The fear flashing in her eyes like muted lightning appears to be legitimate. For once, she's reacting to something that's happening to her rather than consulting acting notes in her head.

Slater is to be congratulated for getting a rise out of Lange. He brings the same conviction to much of his performance in the role of a frustrated shoe-warehouse worker who's falling in love with long distance just as his father did before him. The outing is marred, though, by a few mannerisms of Slater's own. His idea of natural acting is repeatedly to run his hands through his hair and to break up the Williams dialogue -- long applauded for its lambent poetry -- in odd places. (Maybe he's falling back on this irritating approach until he catches up on time lost due to his late attachment to the project.)

Then there's Sarah Paulson as Laura, diligent caretaker of the literal glass menagerie among the figurative -- and famously autobiographical -- glass menagerie that Williams so majestically unveils. Hers is a performance lit from deep within. More shy than any dramatic figure this side of Reenie Flood in William Inge's Williams-influenced play The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Laura has let the brace on her left leg dictate her response to life. When the gentleman caller (Josh Lucas, appealing in his directness) draws her out of herself in the penultimate scene, Paulson is so affecting that, perhaps for the first time, Williams' early masterpiece becomes Laura's story.

Williams considered his memory play an example of what he saw as a new "plastic" theater; he wanted stage illusion to serve as a metaphor for life's simultaneously sustaining and destructive illusions. Director David Leveaux is commendably true to Williams, even using some of the dream-like projections that the dramatist calls for. Tom Pye has obliged with a set that includes a large, gauzy curtain for lighting designer Natasha Katz to play tricks upon. Sound designer Dan Moses Schreier sends evocative music strains over from the Paradise dance hall next door. Still, helpful as these fixings are, any Glass Menagerie that lacks a transcendent Amanda Wingfield is irreparably shattered.