FEB 1, 2013
A.R.T. Dramaturg Ryan McKittrick speaks with director John Tiffany and actress Cherry Jones, who plays Amanda Wingfield
Ryan McKittrick: John, when you and Diane Paulus started talking about what you might direct at the A.R.T., you told her that The Glass Menagerie was your favorite play. What do you like so much about this play?
John Tiffany: It’s a staple of great twentieth-century American plays. It’s a great family drama where everything is within a family and within one living room—which is what I think American dramatists do amazingly. The architecture of the United States and even the whole world gets created within a living room. I feel very connected to what Tennessee Williams writes in The Glass Menagerie because it’s about fragility and it’s about people. What he’s trying to say is that the world should be a place where damaged people like these can live, and it’s a disaster that it isn’t. Because Williams was a damaged, fragile person himself, I find the way he writes about damaged people deeply moving. So that’s why I’ve always loved this play. But I’ve never directed it, and I only suggested it to Diane after meeting you, Cherry. You’d just come back from your parents’ home in Tennessee. You’d been clearing out your mom’s things, and you talked about the letters that you’d found. And you started speaking in your mom’s voice.
Cherry Jones: Really? Without being aware of it?
JT: Without being aware. And my research at Harvard at that time was all about dialect and code switching, which is when you subconsciously move between the different versions of yourself. And after talking with you, I realized I had my Amanda Wingfield. So I sent you an email a few weeks later, didn’t I?
CJ: Yeah, and I think I said, “Oh, John…”
JT: You said “No way!”
CJ: I said I would absolutely love to work together but there is no way I’m going to do that role! I was certain that I never wanted to do Amanda Wingfield once my Laura years had passed. And, by the way, I never played Laura, either. So once my Laura years passed I took all my copies of The Glass Menagerie off the shelves and gave them away. Because I thought that if I rid the house of those copies, then when I got the call for Amanda I could say, “I’m so sorry but I don’t have it in the house. I just can’t do it!” But wouldn’t you know? The bastard keeps going on about The Glass Menagerie! And you said, “Just once! We’ll just read through it together once.”
JT: Right, and when you came to that reading you said, “Well, this is the first and last time anybody will ever hear me read Amanda Wingfield.”
What was the experience of reading the play out loud like for you, Cherry?
CJ: Well, I must have read the first act a lot more than the second, because I had no idea what to do with the second act. But when I read the first act, I started thinking that this is a possibility. I realized that I’m one of the last people who is the right age to play that part who actually knew those kind of women. I was born in Tennessee in 1956, which means that when I was ten years old, the women who were Edwina [Tennessee Williams’s mother] and Amanda’s age were in their late 70s and still vital to our community. I knew them well. They were the choir directors at the church, they were the little ladies who would invite us over for cheese biscuits and hot chocolate out of demitasse cups. They were women whose grandfathers had fought in the American Civil War. Only they didn’t say Civil War, they said “See Ah Vul Wa Wah” [with a pronounced Southern accent]. It’s a sound and a sensibility, and I knew even as a ten-year-old that this was passing away like a phantom before my very eyes, because there was no one else on the planet like this small group of women in my hometown. I knew it was unique—like Laura’s glass unicorn. And I loved them. They all had marvelous names—they were Aunt Margaret Porter and Miss Lorraine Davis and Miss Annie Warren Mills, whose favorite prayer was “Dear Lord, I can’t. You can. Please do!” They were extraordinary women. And then I realized that Blue Mountain [the place where Amanda Wingfield used to receive her gentleman callers] is in Mississippi, just two hours from where I grew up in Tennessee. So I started to feel some kind of responsibility to take this role because I’m a dramatic actress and I’m from that part of the world. And I always loved Tennessee Williams. I love reading about him. I love his letters, the people he touched, the people that he ran from. I love reading about the people he was there for. I’m just fascinated by him.
What is it you love about him?
CJ: I love that he figured out a way to survive. Because he shouldn’t have survived. Genius doesn’t count for much, but he made it work for him, and he had enough stability through his grandparents.
JT: And it was his writing that helped him survive, too, wasn’t it?
CJ: Writing and swimming every day of his adult life.
JT: And the sex!
CJ: That, too!
JT: There’s an amazing section in the biography, Tom, that moved me so deeply that I had to stop reading it for a couple days. There was a period when Williams was still living in St. Louis when he felt like the failed son of a failed man. That’s how he puts it: the failed son of a failure. Because his father, Cornelius was a complete failure.
CJ: And the gay son of a failed straight father.
JT: Exactly. And his sister, Rose, experienced the same sense of failure. But she didn’t have an outlet like her brother. So she absorbed it all and it sent her mad. But the writing saved Tennessee’s life. And it just makes you realize how many of us have actually been saved by this thing called theater—this outlet that we have.
Let’s get back to the day you all read the script aloud together. What happened by the end of that reading?
JT: Well, Cherry closed her script, and then…I think what happened…I hope I’m not mythologizing this!
CJ: Oh, go ahead!
JT: Yorkshire people are Southerners at heart! Why let the truth get in the way of a good story, right? So, Cherry closed the book and said, “When do we start?” And we went round the corner to a coffee shop and started talking about…
CJ: The set.
JT: The set. You, me, and Bobby [Set Designer Bob Crowley].
You have an incredible design team for this production. How did you end up with this group?
JT: During technical rehearsals for my production of Once, I was talking about the reading of The Glass Menagerie and the set designer Bob Crowley said, “OOOH, that’s my favorite play! And I’ve never designed it.” And then the lighting designer Natasha Katz said “OOOH, that’s my favorite play!” And then the choreographer Steven Hoggett came in and said, “What are you talking about?” And I said, “Well, I’m doing a reading of The Glass Menagerie,” and he said, “OOOH, I love that play!”
I had the same response when I reread the play last year. Why do so many people love this play?
JT: Because it’s pure craft. It’s a perfect play.
CJ: Because it’s pure heartache and pure craft.
JT: And it’s got an amazing story, which plays set in living rooms don’t always have. It’s that narrative thrill that The Glass Menagerie manages to achieve. It’s also pure theater. I remember when I was at university studying Tennessee Williams. It was his introduction to The Glass Menagerie, where he writes about plastic theater and the philosophy of plastic theater, that made me understand theater. I was really into the Wooster Group at the time, and when I went to see them in Glasgow I understood that they were doing plastic theater.
Could you talk about the conversations you’ve had with the set designer, Bob Crowley?
JT: Our first thought was to start with an empty stage, so that Tom could pull the set out. But I’ve seen that quite a bit, and then we realized that the exciting thing is how Amanda and Laura are still there when Tom takes us back to the house. It’s like the molecules of Amanda and Laura are still there, and the water of Tom makes them appear and take form again. So then we started thinking about the floor. We knew we wanted an infinity curve, like they were in the middle of a galaxy. And both Bob and I looked at an artist called Richard Wilson. He has a piece at the Saatchi Gallery called “Oil” where he’s coated the entire floor with black sump oil. The smell is incredible. And we started thinking that we could have two hexagonal platforms floating like a hydrocarbon molecule, with the fire escape coming out of the floor like a unicorn’s horn. Or a lightning bolt. The reflection on the surface will be absolutely stunning. It will look like they are floating in a galaxy.
Cherry, what kind of preparation have you been doing for this role?
CJ: I love to familiarize myself with the text and go to the first table read knowing it well. But I don’t want to know this play too far in advance because I want to be able to be alive to Celia and Zach and Brian. I want to be alive to the experience. I keep running into all these women who take my shoulders and basically say, “The play will guide you.” Donna McKechnie played the role, and when I ran into her the other night she said to me, “It will forevermore enrich your life.” There’s not one role that I’ve enjoyed playing that didn’t make me throw the script across the room a few times in the early stages of reading it. And I do feel that way about this character. Amanda is a woman who leans forward, as all great theater characters must. They don’t lean back and wait for something to happen. She is propelling. I knew Southern women like her who never stopped talking. They’d say, “Oh Cherry, I’m just ever so glad that you’re here today and your mother and I were just talking the other day, and I heard about that show that you were doing up in so and so and did you know that Bobby Joe came back the other day and would you like a little something in that? Would you like a little cream in that? Would you like a little sugar?” You know, all that mindless stuff. Amanda is purposeful, but there’s that engine in her – you just want to hear Tom scream, “SHUT UP!”
JT: She’s a peacock.
CJ: She is a peacock, but she’s also an engine. She’s an engine of a woman who has survived the twenties without a man. When the rest of the world was prospering, her family wasn’t. They were barely getting by and then they were laid low by The Depression. To me, the most profoundly moving of all Amanda’s lines is when she says to Tom, “You are my right hand bower.” She means that, because it has been virtually impossible for this Southern woman living in the godforsaken North in a world that has just changed forever for the dire worse. All the beauty is gone. It is gray and it is bleak. So now I’m trying to figure out what that engine in her is—that engine that makes her so abhorrent to her son. And yet at the same time he obviously respects her, because he knows what she’s done for them. It’s just fascinating.
JT: I salivate when I think about characters like Amanda being on stage because she’s an absolute treat!
CJ: She is a treat!
JT: She’s like one of those Yorkshire women I know: why say one word when 418 will do? I speak, therefore I am. If I stop speaking, I’ll die.
What questions are on your mind as you head into rehearsals?
JT: My oxygen is working with actors on text. And finding precision and making choices. It’s all about choices. Then the detail will emerge. I don’t have big questions about the play because I know it works and I know it’s gorgeous.
CJ: We just need to get it right and give it this completely new breath of oxygen that Tennessee would be so thrilled by.
JT: It’s a lovely thing that the question isn’t “does this play work?” The question is “how does it work?”
Ryan McKittrick is the A.R.T. Dramaturg and co-head of the Dramaturgy Program at the A.R.T./Moscow Art Theater School Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University