New York Times review: A Shape of Memory, Fragile and Fierce
Publication date: 
February 15, 2013
Author: 
Ben Brantley

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The movement is small, abrupt and oddly graceful for an act of clumsiness. It happens so fast that you’re surprised that you didn’t miss it. Then again, how could you have?

Because with that quick, backward step, which occurs during Tom Wingfield’s opening monologue in the gorgeous new production of “The Glass Menagerie” at the American Repertory Theater, something both momentous and commonplace has happened.
 
A man has been pulled out of the present and sent stumbling into a past that is never not waiting to claim him. And if the letting go isn’t entirely voluntary, it has the resignation of someone who knew it was going to happen; after all, it never does stop happening, does it?
 
Tom, played in a benchmark performance by Zachary Quinto, rights himself automatically after that stumble and walks matter-of-factly into the threadbare St. Louis apartment he inhabited years earlier with his mother and sister. But we know that from now on he’s falling, and that we’ll be falling with him.
 
Memory is a force of gravity in this “Glass Menagerie,” which is such a thorough rejuvenation of Williams’s 1944 drama that I hesitate to call it a revival. Staged by John Tiffany with the choreographer Steven Hoggett, this production gives visual life to the forms and rhythms of reminiscence in ways that you’ve surely never seen before but that feel uncompromisingly right.
 
Working with a top-notch cast of four — Mr. Quinto, Cherry Jones, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Brian J. Smith — and a technical team of poets, Mr. Tiffany and Mr. Hoggett (fruitful collaborators on “Once” and “Black Watch”) have created a complete and self-contained landscape that follows its own distorting and distilling laws of physics.
 
Tom doesn’t hedge in giving that world a name. “This play is memory,” he says simply. And more than any production of “Menagerie” I’ve seen, this one presents Tom’s account of a chapter in his life — set to music as airborne as wind chimes (by Nico Muhly) — as the product of a single lyrical, dramatizing, guilt-crippled mind. And in doing so, it suggests how retrospection makes poets of us all, as we transform personal history into something we can live with.
 
I know you’re aching to hear about Ms. Jones, perhaps the greatest stage actress of her generation, as Amanda Wingfield, one of the greatest roles in American theater. Let me assure you that she’s both even more than you hoped for and not at all what you might have expected. But I’m going to linger a bit longer on the general mise-en-scène, because it so defines how the cast members move through it.
 
The set and costume designer Bob Crowley has envisioned the cramped apartment shared by Amanda and her children, Tom and Laura (Ms. Keenan-Bolger), as polygonal platforms on the edge of eternal night. I don’t mean just the shadows that lap at the set. (Natasha Katz is the magic-making lighting designer.)
 
A moat of black liquid lies, placid and menacing, in front of the stage, and every so often one of the characters walks to its brink and stares into it. It’s the abyss — of death, yes, but even worse, of being lost in life — that threatens these three family members who cling together so fractiously.
 
The forms this clinging takes are among the best known in American drama. Amanda is the former Southern belle, whose handsome, restless husband left her 16 years ago with two children, whom she nags and prods relentlessly, in the voice of a dead civilization.
 
Neither has any chance of fulfilling their mother’s American dream of success. Laura is a lame, pathologically shy stay-at-home; Tom has his father’s wandering ways and allergy to confinement. He’s long gone when the play begins, and what we see is what he can’t help remembering — “truth,” as he puts it, “in the pleasant guise of an illusion.”
 
As the familiar story proceeds — with Amanda needling Tom into bringing a gentleman caller home for dinner to meet the agoraphobic Laura — the actions and images assume shapes, both heightened and pared-down, that suggest how we edit and exaggerate when we remember. And how memory can sometimes not creep up, but leap up, on us, as when Laura first makes her entrance into Tom’s imagination. (I’ll let you experience that one firsthand.)
 
Years’ worth of domestic ritual — of meals cooked and tables laid and cleared — is summoned by a wordless ballet of gestures performed by Amanda and Laura. A repeated vision of Laura struggling to move a heavy typewriter is frozen in the amber of a brother’s pained guilt.
 
Tom himself is forever pacing, practically racing, falling onto furniture as if he meant to shatter it. When the family sits down to dinner, you never see the food. And Laura’s collection of little glass animals has been reduced to a single unicorn, which casts prismatic light from a low stool whenever she looks upon it. Memory has latched on to and enlarged the details that count.
 
Williams allowed for great latitude to those who would later stage the play, with one caveat: “When a play employs unconventional techniques,” he wrote, “it is not, or certainly shouldn’t be, trying to escape its responsibility of dealing with reality.” And as stylized as this “Menagerie” may be, its emotions never feel less than acutely real.
 
We are always aware of the visceral bond that connects the Wingfields, of the love as well as the rancor. The alarmed, heart-stopping cries that spring from Tom and Amanda whenever Laura stumbles are testimonies to a passionate, worried protectiveness they mostly try to conceal. Laura has never seemed more mortally fragile.
 
Yet Ms. Keenan-Bolger endows her with a feral stubbornness within the shyness, like an animal burrowed in a safe lair who knows that it’s dangerous outside. When Laura timidly ventures out of that burrow, to make fleeting contact with the long-awaited gentleman caller, Jim (the excellent Mr. Smith), her worst instincts are confirmed, though only after an exquisite interlude of shimmering hopefulness.
 
Mr. Quinto, best known for his screen work, is the finest Tom I’ve ever seen, a defensive romantic, sardonically in love with his own lush powers of description. You truly feel that he is shaping this play as we watch, and we wince and marvel in those moments when he no longer seems in control, when reality rears its reproachful head.
 
That head belongs to Ms. Jones, who delivers a magnificently human performance, anchoring Amanda without the customary grotesque eccentricities. For all her florid talk of a glorious, genteel Southern youth, this Amanda is rooted in the shabby, debt-plagued present and determined to take command of it, even though the tools she uses are woefully anachronistic.
 
Ms. Jones makes Amanda’s garrulousness her survival strategy, as if talking might keep the wolf from the door — and keep her from seeing the darkness that waits to devour her family. She knows it’s there; you hear that knowledge when Ms. Jones’s voice sinks into cryptlike chest tones.
 
As for that fabled scene where Amanda dons a frilly frock from her girlhood to greet Laura’s gentleman caller, Ms. Jones presents it without camp or pathos. When Amanda, in that frock, describes one spinning, malaria-touched summer of her gilded youth, Ms. Jones miraculously becomes the beautiful girl who first wore that dress.
 
Memory may be a torturer in “The Glass Menagerie.” But every so often, as this glorious production allows, it lights up the darkness like a divine benediction.

Search form