Zachary Quinto, Cherry Jones and Celia

Zachary Quinto, Cherry Jones star in American Repertory Theater's epic and intimate production.

Memory floats on a giant plane of regret in American Repertory Theater’s epic and intimate production of “The Glass Menagerie,” trapped forever between a shimmering black sea and an endless void that even an infinite fire escape can’t reach. Tennessee Williams’ world of poetry and prose is presented gracefully, even wondrously, in this distinctive production — helmed by John Tiffany (“Once”) and starring Cherry Jones and Zachary Quinto — that no doubt will have Gotham’s gentlemen and women coming to call. But sometimes it’s just awkward and disconnected.

The cramped St. Louis apartment ruled by Jones’ resilient Amanda Wingfield may have been claustrophobic in reality but the haunted memory of it in the mind of her son Tom (Quinto) looms large on the Loeb stage as he conjures just the essentials — a table, a screen, a hat rack, a couch — and places them in a great limbo of a landscape as he tries to exorcise the past.

Designer Bob Crowley gets high marks for creating a stunning big picture but misses on some of the details, including a misplaced moon, a downstairs staircase and some odd costume choices.

There are moments of lyricism and private gazes, but as yet they are not quite integrated into a whole. What gives this distant dream a real-world ache are the quartet of honest performances that bring Williams’ lost and lonely souls to life.

Jones’ take on the iconic character of Amanda is natural, grounded and sympathetically drawn.  Though the humor is toned down a few notches, Amanda’s humanity is clear and her motivations purposeful. This is an Amanda whose chatter and flutters are not those of a neurotic nag, but are rather cultural quirks mixed with a mother’s desperate, fearful, insistent need to inspire, instruct and fortify her children for a world that can be cruel to those who are damaged or different.

Jones’ most effective moment comes when Amanda becomes speechless as she halts her upbeat gab, suddenly recalling the time she met her future ne’er-do-well husband. Through her eyes and body language, an entire memory play of her own unfolds in seconds, one that is full of love, hope and ultimately hurt.

Quinto’s Tom, too, reveals his character through the simplest of looks, gestures and movements (some staged by choreographer Steven Hoggett). He’s the picture of the sensitive soul simmering with secrets as he becomes increasingly conflicted by desire, dreams and duty. He also brings a gentle humor as a son who has navigated familial oppression and submission with a survivalist’s wit and resignation — until he flees and becomes one of the fugitive kind.

Celia Keegan-Bolger’s Laura is on the edge of the abyss, too, seeing herself as an outcast because of her physical limits. It is Tom’s memory play, and perhaps he sees her as not so handicapped, but here her physical limits are, oddly, nearly undetectable.

Not so the emotional ones. With eyes wide open as she takes in all the family’s woes, she trembles in fear of the future, simply aching to disappear, which she does in one of the production’s most striking visual effects.

As the Gentleman Caller, Brian J. Smith brings a ray of hope into the Wingfield home, if only for a moment, in a beautifully, simply staged candlelight scene with Laura. Smith subtly shows a more complex heart beneath surface charm and bravado.

Sets and costumes, Bob Crowley; lighting, Natasha Katz; sound, Clive Goodwin; music, Nico Muhly; movement, Steven Hoggett; production stage manager, Chris De Camillis. Opened, reviewed Feb. 6, 2013. Runs through March 17. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

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(Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, Mass.; 556 seats; $95 top)

Cast:
Amanda – Cherry Jones
Tom – Zachary Quinto
Laura – Celia Keenan-Bolger
The Gentleman Caller – Brian J. Smith
An American Repertory Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Tennessee Williams. Directed by John Tiffany. Sets and costumes, Bob Crowley; lighting, Natasha Katz; sound, Clive Goodwin; music, Nico Muhly; movement, Steven Hoggett; production stage manager, Chris De Camillis. Opened, reviewed Feb. 6, 2013. Runs through March 17. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

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