Of all the plays in the American canon, “The Glass Menagerie” seems a most unlikely candidate for deconstruction. But that doesn’t deter director Sam Gold (“Fun Home,” “Othello”) from laying hands on this Tennessee Williams gem and subjecting it to a severe reinterpretation — thereby hugely challenging the efforts of a very keen Sally Field.
The production design immediately telegraphs Gold’s reductive approach to the playwright’s 1944 masterwork. Andrew Lieberman’s austere set is exposed to the paint-blackened bricks of the theater walls and dressed with a simple kitchen table set and a props cart. Adam Silverman’s pinpoint lighting adds to the severity of the design.
Like the stage setting, Williams’s play has been stripped to the gut, shorn of its lyrical accoutrements and reduced to its raw text. But a strategy that might illuminate other dramas disregards the fact that these embellishments — the harmonies of the language, the melodic accents, the music of nostalgia — are intrinsic to the writer’s plays, and especially to an intimate “memory play” like this one. Understated in the muted performances, the poetry is not quite lost, but diluted.
Joe Mantello, a Tony Award-winning director (for “Assassins” and “Take Me Out”) as well as an actor (“The Normal Heart,” “Angels in America”), is more mature than Tom Wingfield is typically played. The directorial choice to age the character not only distances Tom further in time from his mother Amanda (Sally Field) and sister Laura (Madison Ferris), but it also minimizes his sense of guilt.
Tom’s memories are not kind in this production. For one thing, the Wingfields’ modest apartment in St. Louis becomes positively threadbare in his recollection. Their financial “embarrassment” is portrayed as near-poverty. And when Amanda relives her social triumphs as a Southern belle, her son envisions her in an atrocious ball gown (designed in Pepto-Bismol pink by Wojciech Dziedzic) that robs her of her faded beauty and mocks her own fond memories of her past.
Field’s generous heart goes out to Amanda, warmly supportive of the character’s romantic fantasies while capturing her desperation at the loss of it all. There are times when she seems to be living in two realities at once, playing the lady of quality while clutching a chenille bathrobe and shrieking like a fishwife in her frustration with her life.
Tom inhabits the real world as we know it, but his wavering thoughts seem to modify that world to support his own self-serving memories. His memory of his sister Laura exaggerates what is usually depicted as her slight limp, turning it into a more severe disability that keeps her in a wheelchair. Casting Madison Ferris, who really does use a wheelchair, validates Laura’s vulnerability, but makes Tom look like a selfish jerk for deserting her.
Amplifying the extent of Laura’s disability leads to one unexpected gift to the production. In her scene with the gentleman caller (played with grave kindness by Finn Wittrock) Laura must awkwardly navigate her own way out of her wheelchair. Sitting on floor cushions and bathed in candlelight, Ferris and Wittrock bring an unearthly beauty to a scene that speaks the language of Williams’ poetry, and illuminates the soul of his heartbreaking play.
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