The Glass Menagerie
Sally Field stars in the seventh Broadway revival of an American classic.
This isn't the memory play we remember. Hot on the heels of the acclaimed 2013 revival of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie comes yet another revival, this one starring Sally Field and Joe Mantello at the Belasco Theatre. Helmed by Tony winner Sam Gold (Fun Home), it is the third Broadway mounting of the play in 12 years. It could be argued that 2017 is a better year than either 2013 or 2005 for this tale about fading dreams set against the backdrop of a world on the brink. Unfortunately, Gold makes some baffling choices to undermine the power of Williams' story, leaving us pining for better productions.
The most autobiographical of Williams' plays, The Glass Menagerie is the story of warehouse drudge and poet Tom Wingfield (Mantello), who is also our narrator. He introduces us to his mother, Amanda (Field), a Southern belle living in exile. She shares a tiny St. Louis apartment with Tom and her daughter, Laura (Madison Ferris), a painfully shy woman disabled from a childhood illness. Laura spends much of her day listening to an old Victrola and polishing her collection of glass animals. While Tom dreams of escaping this purgatory, Amanda lives in hope that Laura will find a husband. She sees an opportunity in Jim O'Connor (Finn Wittrock), a young go-getter who works with Tom. Tom invites Jim to dinner, unaware that Laura has harbored a secret desire for this gentleman caller since high school.
Drawn from the hazy recesses of memory, this play may not be the best fit for Gold, who has recently expressed his desire to put real people in humiliatingly real situations onstage. "Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted," Tom says in his opening narration. "It is sentimental, it is not realistic." This is right before we watch Field genuinely struggle to pull a wheelchair up a staircase at the lip of the stage as Ferris inches up behind her. Eschewing the recommended dim lighting, Gold presents the first three scenes with the house lights up.
Scenic designer Andrew Lieberman adorns the bare stage with a long table and four chairs. Props move on and off a tall shelf, making it seem as though we are watching an early rehearsal. Such stripped-down productions have the benefit of allowing the playwright's words to soar above stage wizardry, and that occasionally happens here, despite Gold's best efforts to bring it all down to earth.
Much of this has to do with the dynamite performances of our two lead actors: Field plays Amanda with the passion and specificity of a woman who has been preparing for this role for a lifetime. She brings a maternal instinct to the part that tastes like sweet tea tempered by the juice of a hundred lemons. When she dons her cotillion dress (a monstrosity of pink tulle designed by Wojciech Dziedzic), she waves the skirt around like a Disney princess. Amanda's grandeur, pride, and desperation seamlessly coexist in Field's performance, an irresistible cocktail of comedy and tragedy.
Mantello grounds the play in memory with a surprisingly age-appropriate performance: Although he is three decades older than his character during the action of the play, there is never any doubt that we are seeing the recollections of a world-weary man looking deep into his past. The guilt of this time indelibly marks his sullen face.
Ferris (who actually lives with muscular dystrophy and performs much of the play in a wheelchair) is more inscrutable. She gives the most memorable physical performance of Laura I've ever witnessed, crawling across the stage on all fours with a pronounced curve in her spine. She is not the cute, subtly limping Laura of old, and that is thrilling. Disappointingly, she pairs this exposed physicality with a monotonous vocal delivery that has disastrous consequences for the show's pivotal scene.
That's when Jim goes to find Laura, who has spent dinner anxiously hiding out in the living room. Gold stages this entire scene around a candelabrum, since the electricity has gone out in the Wingfield apartment. Lighting designer Adam Silverman uses no stage lights to augment this scant illumination, a deadly choice in a 1,000-seat house. The late addition of a neon sign behind the scene doesn't help matters much. Wearing a broad smile and a sunny disposition, Wittrock valiantly plays Jim as Captain America: He is foolishly optimistic, but completely charming. We fall in love with him because we want to see this country the same way he does, as a land of endless promise.
Frustratingly, Gold quashes our hopes from the outset, approaching this scene with dark cynicism. Ferris remains stony throughout, emitting a derisive laugh at his attempt to mansplain confidence to her. As a result, he never seems more than an ignorant doofus unaware of his privilege. Yes, Jim is arrogant and naive, but Laura is supposed to fall for him because of his inability to see obstacles. This is her big chance to run with all the other horses, and she risks her fragile heart on its promise. But since she never falls for his charm in this production, there is never any risk. When Jim clumsily bumps into her favorite glass figurine, Ferris' response is so nonchalant, we suspect she had five replicas hiding in the back of the menagerie. It is possible that Ferris' face belies her unemotional delivery, but Gold's insistence on a stage lit only by fire ensures that we never see it.
The whole thing leaves us feeling flat: We don't experience the rhapsodic high of nearly grasping a dream, or the crushing disappointment of learning that it was actually miles out of reach. Instead, we walk away from an awkward blind date that was always based on the delusions of an overbearing mother. It's an awfully contemptuous take on one of the most enduring dramas of the American theater.