As with all fine revivals, helmer Gordon Edelstein’s concept for his splendid, unmissable “The Glass Menagerie” at the Taper doesn’t blast the delicate play off its hinges, but instead brings out all manner of hitherto-unseen insights, stage business and laughs. It also provides a platform for the Amanda of Judith Ivey which, put simply, should assert her stamp on the role for the next 70 years just as Laurette Taylor has owned it for the previous 70.
The notion, as originated at Long Wharf and seen in Gotham, is Tom Wingfield as explicit surrogate for Tom (“Tennessee”) Williams, not just remembering his Depression St. Louis childhood but composing it as a play, reading portions aloud to savor them.
Michael Yeargan’s setting isn’t the usual faded chintz Wingfield flat but a stark, seedy hotel room right out of film noir, the sort of transients’ port-of-call common to lost, penniless fugitives. There Tom broods, drinks and above all types, reliving his past in excruciating present tense with the characters floating about the room and through walls in a hazy limbo. (Credit the remarkable Jennifer Tipton for the varying degrees of haze and dank.)
Whereas the average “Menagerie” ends with an intimation of Tom’s future guilt, this one wallows in it throughout, forcing Patch Darragh to walk a three-hour fine line between stark self-examination and maudlin self-pity. He adopts Williams’ own reedy, fey Southern contralto to eke out every bit of wry humor, while remaining brutally honest with everyone’s weaknesses, most of all his own.
To reinforce the playwright/character connection, Keira Keeley endows sister Laura with a near-autistic monotone and flattened effect that evoke the real sister Edwina, whose later lobotomy haunted the writer forever.
And gentleman caller Jim isn’t the usual tall smoothie but shorter, pugnacious Ben McKenzie (“Southland”), a dead ringer for Williams’ expressed “type” (including soulmate Frank Merlo) who thereby casts a seductive spell on both Wingfield children.
Laura and Jim’s famous encounter gains all sorts of fresh facets through these unconventional interpretations, never more so than when Jim recognizes this damaged girl as a whole human being he could, in fact, love forever. But when he backs off it’s as if an iron door is clanging shut: We know no one will ever see her that way again. If your heart doesn’t break, check whether you turned off your pacemaker instead of your cellphone at curtain time.
In the end, the production will linger most in the memory because of Ivey and her crucial choice to keep everyday events light.
You love this Amanda, and not just because a loving (if ambivalent) son is providing the dossier. It’s because the actress never condescends to her, neither caricaturing nor idealizing. (Neither does the perfectly conceived wardrobe provided by Martin Pakledinaz.) Sentimental idealization is the rock on which most Amandas founder, but Ivey keeps it real.
By accentuating the positive, Edelstein and Ivey sidestep dreary melodrama while setting us up for act two’s sucker punch, when the “plans and provisions” go up the spout and the ready giggles turn hollow and heavy. Williams always intended that once “we cannot hear the mother’s speech, her silliness is gone and she has dignity and tragic beauty.” The final tableau delivers.