It’s Too Bad She Won’t Live, but Then Again, Who Does?

By SAM THIELMAN

*****
The Glass Menagerie at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, by Tennessee Williams. Directed by John Tiffany. Set and costumes by Bob Crowley. Starring Zachary Quinto, Cherry Jones, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Brian J. Smith.
*****

One of the glorious problems that keeps a play from a second life as a book of poetry (or most plays; I’ll give you the Greeks and the odd, rule-proving exception like Ntozake Shange) is the little differences made by context; Tom Wingfield complains about his overbearing mother and needy sister more than once in The Glass Menagerie, but sometimes he berates Amanda to her face and sometimes he sighs over Laura behind her back, and in the third, most important sometimes, he simply, sadly tells the audience how he feels. The emotional content of these very similar expressions of frustration and resentment and exasperation varies wildly across the play’s rich emotional landscape, and that is why it sucks so often.

I told a friend I was headed up to Boston to see John Tiffany’s production of this play and he made a face I’ve only ever seen before on people who are hearing about a health code scandal at a nursing home or that time you saw a roach at their favorite restaurant. The Glass Menagerie is done badly nearly as often as Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and for a lot of the same reasons; its subject matter—suffocating family relations—seems familiar; its subtext—Williams’ sad biography and Tom’s implied homosexuality—seems easy to grasp; and yet, largely because we assume those little parts are the whole of the play, its power slips away so often that we eventually come to wonder whether it was there in the first place.

Tiffany’s most interesting work thus far in a brilliant career is Black Watch, a bitter, elegiac show about Scotland’s answer to the SAS and the SEALS. I say “show” because it was so filled with dance and song that you couldn’t have properly called it a play, but it didn’t conform to the rules of musical theater well enough to belong in that category, either. When the characters needed to sing, they sang, when they needed to dance, they danced; when they needed to die, they died.

A Brit, Tiffany’s muscular approach to Williams’s first masterpiece makes all of the context physical. When Amanda (Cherry Jones) dresses her disabled, cripplingly shy daughter (Celia Keenan-Bolger) to meet a friend of her wayward son Tom (Zachary Quinto) named Jim (Brian J. Smith), she takes the little glass unicorn that Laura loves so dearly (and that everyone else ignores) off the top of its display case, which is probably 18 inches high, and sticks Laura up there so she can smooth out the wrinkles in her dress and help her pad her bra. For another play, literally putting a tragic character on a pedestal would be much, much too obvious, but Tom tells us from the very beginning that we’re seeing things not as they are, but as he remembers them.

Robert Crowley’s set, easily among the best I’ve ever had the pleasure to see, makes this point beautifully. The play’s fire escape—which is also the Wingfields’ porch, since they live in a St. Louis building poor enough to have split its apartments in two, so that one opens onto the interior stairwells and hallways and another opens out the back onto the fire escape (it’s astonishing how many productions misunderstand or ignore this detail)—diminishes upward, each successive story smaller than the one below as it ascends on lines of perspective into the flys. The apartment itself, furnished as a little oasis of period-perfect naturalism, is a pair of hexagonal islands on a still pool of black water, where a curved spike of neon sticks up like a shark’s fin, stage right. The neon lights up, and the spike and its reflection, half in this world and half in the world below, make the moon.

The play and its events, a little more simply, are a burr in Tom’s beautiful memory; an imperfection made of ugly furniture and cheap curtains and bad feelings that interrupt and deform the fantastic landscape of his mind. He tells us at the play’s end that he’s tried hard and failed to tear out this part of his life by the roots, most drastically by abandoning his mother and sister to a life of poverty or worse. “Oh, Laura, Laura,” he says, “I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!” It’s poor poetry, but its artlessness, with Tiffany’s direction and Crowley’s tangible symbolism, gives us the desperation as itself, without mediation.

Oh, yes, there’s also the actor. Zachary Quinto may be doomed to inhabit posterity wearing pointed ears and a tight blue shirt as Spock in J.J. Abrams’ slick sequel-remakes in the venerable-but-still-not-respectable Star Trek franchise, but he seems to like the theater, which is good, because it agrees with him. Quinto’s onstage specialty seems to be a complicated kind of gay self-loathing; at the Signature Theater’s revival of Tony Kushner’s meandering opus Angels in America, he played Louis, a charming man whose partner’s slow descent into torturous death from AIDS proves too much for him, and he fucks off to mutually seduce a confused, closeted, conservative Mormon man. Quinto’s performance was excellent; he was prettier than the actor playing his partner Prior and he played it that way: on the one hand, Louis had a moral duty to stay with his decaying partner; on the other, he didn’t need that kind of grief—he could find a better piece of ass in any bar in Manhattan on any night of the week.

Tom, perhaps obviously, is one of Louis’s ancestors, and Quinto plays him with the same intelligence about the inner mechanics of frustration and anger. Quinto’s Tom hates his job in the warehouse, he hates his mother and he even hates his poor helpless sister for being so fucking poor and helpless all the time. He hates himself most of all. This is a great relief. As times have complicated for gay rights and sexual liberty in general, actors and directors working on this play have tended to play down Tom’s badness, particularly since it’s taken as read that his alcoholism is a metaphor for his homosexuality. This is infuriating for all kinds of reasons—for one thing, alcoholism and homosexuality coexisted quite comfortably in the author, whose autobiography this clearly is—but far worse is what the poor-gay-Tom-can’t-be-expected-to-suffer-like-this productions have done to Amanda.

A recent, wildly overpraised staging of this show came to town with a respected actress in the role of Amanda Wingfield and it was everything you could possibly accuse the play of being: misogynist to the extent that Amanda might as well have been a man in drag, fawning in its adoration of Tom the Martyr, interesting exclusively when neither character was on stage. When Gentleman Jim came to call, Amanda was decked out in the best dress she had and did her level best to seduce an unimpressed Jim in front of her poor, smashed daughter, a scene that was horrifying in its cruelty to Laura but also horrifying in its cruelty to the actress playing Amanda, whose skills were used exclusively to make her character an aren’t-women-disGUSTing caricature. The production’s Amanda alternated between pitiable and contemptible when she wasn’t both. I’ve heard the play’s status as “a memory play” cited as an excuse for this sort of thing but it doesn’t wash. The Glass Menagerie is a play and not a fantasy novel because Tom can’t cut out the truth of it, no matter how hard he tries, and sneering misogyny is not true.

Cherry Jones is, of course, a magnificent performer, but she’s also given the chance here to play a woman in several dimensions. If you have a copy of the play, read her dialogue: it’s not wrong. Laura does need to develop marketable skills or get married; Tom is, actually, on the verge of losing his job; that job does provide every cent of their income. Jones, among the many Amandas I’ve seen, is the first to give the impression that she actually did entertain seventeen gentleman callers in a single afternoon, rather than an unspecified number that has grown in the telling. This interpretation makes so much more sense; Amanda is not Blanche Dubois. She is, in fact, the only character in this play who has honestly dealt with hard reality—her husband, whom she gave up everything for, left her, and she’s had a long time to think about that. Williams imagines her less as delusional white trash than as the deposed royalty of Blue Mountain, Mississippi, and Jones is rightly majestic.

Williams, who was also named Tom, also had a disabled sister, though her name was Rose, not Laura, and she was schizophrenic, not crippled. Their mother eventually had Rose lobotomized to “cure” her, and Williams had to live with not merely the memory of Rose’s disability but the horrible, human consequences of its drastic remedy for the rest of her long, long life. A friend of mine knew the two of them together briefly and described a day out with Tenn and Rose to me at one point. Suffice it to say that I’d drink, too. Celia Keenan-Bolger plays what is likely the least realistic and thus most sympathetic role in the play, and she seem to intuit that she has some room to test the limits of the audience’s sympathy. Like Quinto, she’s walking a knife’s edge; her character is both infuriatingly unself-conscious and endearingly fragile. It’s in the character of Laura that the true darkness of The Glass Menagerie becomes real; when Jim kisses her and leaves, she becomes “like all the other horses,” but, crucially, without any of the benefits. She still can’t type. She’s still not married. Her weakling brother is too much like his father and leaves the family. She and her mother will be women alone during the Second World War, and eventually, the real Rose will have a much more literal version of the procedure Laura invents when Jim breaks the unicorn.

“I’ll just imagine he had an operation. The horn was removed to make him feel less—freakish!” she tells Jim, who looks for a shining moment like he might take the unicorn’s place in the menagerie himself. “Now he will feel at home with the other horses, the ones that don’t have horns.”

As the play closes, Tom observes that “time is the longest distance between two places;” yet Crowley and Tiffany tell us that this play is suspended in time, a pair of little islands on a wine-dark sea in the middle of the Loeb Theater. Above it is the past, where the light comes from but the stairs leading up are too small to climb; below is the future: a pool of black water and the other half of the crescent moon, where the only passable segment of the fire escape leads.

“I left St. Louis,” Tom confesses. “I descended the step of this fire escape for a last time and followed, from then on, in my father’s footsteps, attempting to find in motion what was lost in space—I traveled around a great deal. The cities swept about me like dead leaves, leaves that were brightly colored but torn away from the branches. I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something. It always came upon me unawares, taking me altogether by surprise. Perhaps it was a familiar bit of music. Perhaps it was only a piece of transparent glass.”

As Tom and Amanda bicker and Laura crouches, shattered, by the edge of the little island, she gathers up the final piece of her only treasured possession—the horse that is just like all the other horses has been given away to Jim, and all that’s left is the little shard that used to be mounted on its head. And while her brother and mother shout and recriminate as though she wasn’t even in the room, she drops the broken piece of glass, or herself, or Rose Williams, into the water, or the future, where it will chase Tom until she is dead, and beyond, as soon as he next uses the fire escape.

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