The Kennedy Center’s three-month retrospective of Tennessee Williams has been uniformly successful at laying bare with great sensitivity the author’s searing insights into dysfunctional families. That has been the focus of each director helping to unveil this trove of three full-length plays and five one-acts. Among the fest’s many memorable performances, no single actor has attempted to inappropriately dominate a play. So it is only fitting that the festival would conclude with an equally astute production of “The Glass Menagerie,” Williams’ personal memory play. Director Gregory Mosher has assembled an admirably discordant quartet, headed by Sally Field as the insufferable Amanda Wingfield.
Mosher’s emphasis is clearly on presenting an understated but poignant take on the characterizations, and each member of the ensemble skillfully obliges.
Williams’ alter-ego narrator, Tom, is played with intriguing shades of disdain and aloofness by Jason Butler Harner. The actor makes no attempt to impersonate the playwright, as some others have done, instead offering the perspective of a regular guy who seeks, with limited success, to put his family problems behind him. He guardedly exposes the deep emotions that propel him to escape the stifling home life as his father did. It is a nicely revealing portrait by Harner, who a dozen years ago was an usher at the Kennedy Center.
Similarly, Field steers clear of the aggressive and bombastic approach to portray an insidious, perhaps more conniving Amanda. She is the sad picture of an embittered belle who is deceitful in every way, obsessively suffocating her children while being reduced to making telephone solicitations for the Daughters of the American Revolution.
But the true magic of Field’s mature performance comes when she dons a gauzy gown from a trunk and pathetically reprises the sexuality of her character’s youth for the gentleman caller. With her patronizing laugh and shallow stream-of-conscious dialogue, the character could make anyone regret a free meal.
Jennifer Dundas is truly pitiable as the forlorn sister Laura. Hobbling around on her bad leg and hiding within her collection of cut glass, she casts a gloomy spell on the entire proceedings. It is easy to overplay this role, but Dundas makes it work, especially the tender candlelit scene when the emotional rug is about to get yanked out from under her.
As the gentleman caller, Corey Brill is every bit the cocky loser in love with the attention from the apartment’s two women. Brill’s sensitive side is in full view as he delivers his pep talk to Laura, only to wreak emotional havoc by belatedly announcing his engagement. The moment profoundly underscores the lifetime of disappointment within the drab St. Louis tenement.
And what an apartment it is. John Lee Beatty’s claustrophobic set, superbly lighted by Aaron Copp, is the vision of rejection with its tired furniture and dreary treatments. It’s bordered by a rusty fire escape and the seedy Paradise nightclub, while the father who abandoned his family beams smugly from a portrait at the rear.
It is, of course, a timeless scenario that makes Williams relevant today, 20 years after his death. Demonstrating that point was the goal of the Kennedy Center when it wisely selected “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Menagerie” for its retrospective.