Is the Glass Half-Full or Half-Empty?
A New Jersey production of The Glass Menagerie causes Filichia to reflect on his first experience of the play.
For three years, I'd caught as many musicals as I could, but shows without scores didn't much interest me at that time. Oh, I'd gone to two pre-Broadway tryouts of plays, but both were unimpressive: a 1962 Garson Kanin effort called Come on Strong that would later last a month at the Morosco, and a 1964 comedy called Never Live Over a Pretzel Factory that would play a week at the O'Neill. Neither made me say, "Gee, I gotta start going to non-musicals, too!"
But, oh, that Glass Menagerie! How I came to care about Tom Wingfield, trapped in a dull job and still living with his mother, Amanda, and his sister, Laura. Amanda wants Tom to bring home someone to marry Laura, who has limped since childhood. To this day, I could replicate for you precisely how I jumped up when "The Gentleman Caller" crashed Laura into the little table that held her beloved glass unicorn, altering it forever. Carlton Colyer (Tom), Eunice Brandon (Laura), and Tom Keena (The Gentleman Caller) never became famous, but their names will live with me forever.
Still, any production of The Glass Menagerie ultimately has to be judged by its Amanda Wingfield, and director Michael Murray had a great one in Betty Field. She had returned to her native Boston after a distinguished career that included 20 Broadway roles (including one in Dream Girl that had been written for her by her then-husband, the eminent Elmer Rice) and 19 movies. I can still see Field trying to make the best of a bad situation in Amanda's job as what we now call a telemarketer, desperately trying to sell magazine subscriptions and expressing her complete joy and gratitude when she finally made a sale. I vividly recall how she maintained her optimism while calmly but firmly rebutting both her children when they used the word "cripple" -- until the play's penultimate scene, when she herself spit out the word "cripple" in frustration, right in front of Laura. I still can hear the gasp I emitted.
Five years later, I met Elliott Norton, whose name you may know. After Brooks Atkinson retired as the New York Times reviewer in 1960, Norton, then of the Boston Record-American, was widely considered "the Dean of American Drama Critics." He genuinely enjoying talking theater and seemed to enjoy hearing what this young 'un had to say about eight years of constant theatergoing. He asked what my favorites were, listened with interest, and smiled -- until I got to The Glass Menagerie at the Charles Playhouse. "Oh, Betty Fields was utterly ridiculous in that!" he suddenly said with genuine anger. "She was a caricature of Amanda! A cartoon! The whole production was an abomination!"
Of course, I was shocked and devastated. Could my judgment really have been so poor? Through reading everything I could find on The Glass Menagerie in the five years since I'd seen the play, I had learned that the original production contained what is perceived to be one of the greatest performances in Broadway history: Laurette Taylor's Amanda. I assumed that one reason Norton felt Field could do no right was that he'd seen Taylor do no wrong.
The Glass Menagerie made such an impression on me that I always see it whenever I have a chance. I have now caught 17 productions, but I never tire of it. I've even gone way out of my way to get to it. Some years ago, when I went to visit friends in Baltimore and heard that it was playing at Center Stage, I left the party early to see it. Two years ago, when Elizabeth Ashley did it at Hartford Stage, I battled Route 95 traffic to get there. And, of course I saw Jessica Tandy and Julie Harris do Amanda on Broadway -- not nearly as well as Betty Field. (Or were they actually better? After all, Field was alleged to be "ridiculous.")
Every time I've seen the play since my first experience, I've been disappointed at the way Laura and the Gentleman Caller bumped into the table; never did this moment have the spontaneity that it had in Murray's production. Each time I've reviewed the play, I've taken the director to task for not making the disaster seem truly accidental -- the exception being my review of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's production directed by Robert Cuccioli (yes, that Robert Cuccioli), which I saw last Saturday night. It's not that I thought Cuccioli staged the scene well, but I'm so tired of complaining about it that I just didn't bother to mention it in the review. I did, however, state my disappointment with the actress playing Laura: I thought she was truly atrocious, greatly overdoing every mannerism and facial expression to show that the character was pathologically shy. Her limp wasn't at all consistent, either.
But, oh, did I rave about Wendy Barrie-Wilson as Amanda. She was the best I'd seen since -- well, since Betty Field. But is that a compliment? I have to wonder: Do I have the correct take on this character? Did I get off on the wrong foot with her back in 1964 and have I been misjudging her ever since? On the other hand, who says that even "The Dean" was right 100% of the time?
One of the trustees at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey objected to my review in an e-mail: "Peter, I have never felt the urgent need to write you before, but this morning's Glass Menagerie review had me so upset, I felt compelled. Naturally, I am biased when it comes to the Shakespeare Theatre, but I try to be very objective and learn whenever reading a review." While he went on to say that he did "largely agree with your fine and exuberant comments about Wendy Barrie-Wilson," he added, "I think the actress playing Laura gave one of the finest woman's performances played on that stage -- ever! I thought, as did my wife, that her total body movements and especially her facial expressions, hands, and shoulders were absolutely wonderful. And as I thought about the play over the 24 hours following, it was her pitiful face that kept coming back and back to me. Her limp was perfect and consistent throughout. Williams states in the script (which I read last week) that the limp should be barely noticeable, that it is mostly built up in her mind and that, simply, one leg is slightly shorter than the other."
The key words, I suspect, are "which I read last week." I'm inferring that this was the trustee's first experience with The Glass Menagerie and that from now on, whenever he sees the play, he'll judge every Amanda, Tom, Gentleman Caller, and -- yes! -- Laura on what happened in Madison, New Jersey in June 2003. I understand: I'm still carrying around the theatrical baggage of 39 years ago. Can a theatergoer be fair to a new production when he has certain indelible images in his head from a previous one? It's a nagging question that pops up again and again if one goes to the theater often enough -- which one, of course, never does.