Like all of our greatest playwrights, Tennessee Williams tests everyone — producer, director, designer, actor, critic, theatergoer — who ventures within his orbit; how we respond reveals as much about ourselves as about the artist.
Frank Galati’s revival of “The Glass Menagerie”– the heartbreaking “memory play” that marked Williams’ Broadway debut just about 50 years ago — takes the playwright more literally at his word than most productions, including the one that launched the play.
And yet, by virtue of a galvanizing overview and a pair of extraordinarily risky, intensely felt performances, the production resonates far beyond this literalism: It leaves an audience member with something like the shivering senses of astonishment and pity that those first visitors to the near-squalid Wingfield flat, next to the Paradise Ballroom in St. Louis, must have experienced.
Julie Harris has too much Northern crustiness bred in her bones to be an ideal Amanda, but she’s such a complete spell-caster that this almost revisionist portrayal has its own rewards.
Watch her stick her chin out petulantly as she pouts about marrying her children’s father on the rebound: Her Amanda is less the Southern belle who once entertained 17 gentleman callers on a single sultry afternoon a lifetime ago in a Dixie that no longer exists, than the stern, meddling and desperate single mother of two grown children whose prospects are marginal at best.
At 24, her elder child, Laura (Calista Flockhart, in the leading role she has been working toward during several remarkable seasons Off Broadway), lame and hopelessly introverted, spends her time listening to old phonograph records and tending her collection of glass animals.
Two years younger and stuck in a menial warehouse job, brother Tom (Zeljko Ivanek) threatens to follow in the footsteps of his long-absent father, though not before succumbing to Amanda’s nagging demand that he bring home a gentleman caller (Kevin Kilner) to woo Laura.
The play’s narrator and authorial stand-in, Tom is a would-be poet who finally does escape this hothouse world, only to be forever haunted by his sister’s image in the wake of that date gone tragically wrong.
This Tom’s relationship with this Laura has a feline sensuousness that’s wrenching — and quite perfect. From the moment he introduces the play with a molasses-thick drawl that eventually moderates to something more provocatively insinuating, Ivanek plays Tom as though he’d been choreographed for a ballet of the play.
This is a man who can tie a bow tie perfectly without a mirror, whose body language suggests sexual ambivalence and hunger without broadcasting it, and whose plangent voice gets right inside you.
Flockhart is so young looking that the physical gulf between her and Harris is a hurdle, and she’s so otherworldly that by the end you almost expect her to raise a finger and croak, “Phone home.”
Yet her scene with Kilner — a bit slick looking for the gentleman caller — is beautifully played, every beat right. Kilner’s voice, by the way, is uncannily reminiscent of William Hurt’s.
The simple set by Loy Arcenas (everywhere these days), pays homage to the Jo Mielziner original; Mimi Sherin’s lighting mixes moonbeams and candlelight to moody effect.
Harris’ longtime costumer, Noel Taylor, has performed the miracle of creating a second-act antediluvian gown for Amanda — sherbet-green chiffon elegantly gathered — that doesn’t humiliate the character.
Galati, who won Tonys for his Steppenwolf Theater adaptation and staging of “The Grapes of Wrath,” uses projections to highlight stage directions and bits of dialogue, something Williams specified in the script but which is generally ignored.
While most of it is redundant, if unobtrusive, the device does provide a much stronger social and political context for the play than one usually gets, without mucking up the poetry. It’s a beautiful production.