Every immaculately crafted moment of Sam Gold’s staging of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie rings as clear as it does true. There is no reason to close your eyes, but you could, and the actors’ beautiful enunciation and encapsulation of Williams’s words would be as pleasurable as the best radio play.
You can play the desiccated and still-withering matriarch Amanda Wingfield as a camp monster or you can make her a more domestic, tragic demon, as Sally Field does here with a squirrelly intensity, attempting to control every aspect of her son Tom (Joe Mantello) and her daughter Laura’s (Madison Ferris) lives.
Amanda has a stark flipside. Her Southern belle-ishly voiced delusions of a faded past and glories yet to come, radiating out to every facet of her family’s lives, are all-encompassing, especially around the excitement about the imminent arrival of Jim O’Connor (Finn Wittrock). He is the “gentleman caller” who she fervently hopes will prove the perfect romantic match for Laura, whom Williams describes as “a cripple” and who is happiest with her display of glass animal figurines.
The play was written in 1944, but Tom’s introductory monologue to the audience sets the action in St. Louis in the 1930s, “when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind,” as he puts it, in just one piercing echo to contemporary times. “Their eyes had failed them, or they had failed their eyes, and so they were having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy.”
Andrew Lieberman’s utilitarian set consists of a table and modern office chairs, and a trolley holding a number of items used in the production—candles, glasses, a telephone. There is also a gramophone, from which we hear ghostly music. Gold first directed the production with an all-Dutch cast at Toneelgroep Amsterdam, where Ivo van Hove is artistic director.
Behind the actors at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre and around the stage is big, unfurnished, wide open space: a true arena for emotion. A neon sign for a neighboring bar comes with its mocking name, “Paradise,” and the even more mocking, considering the claustrophobia of the Wingfield home, “Open.”
When characters are not in scenes directly they observe them or sit a little away from them. The psychologically astute implication is that they are present in spirit, or will be affected by whatever is unfolding. This is Williams as seen at his most pared-back. The comedy, and there is much—Field revels in her baiting as much as Mantello in his curdling distaste for her—is hearty rather than camp, like bitter but delectable dregs of cold coffee.
Tom is brisk and angry, constrained and desperate to get out—and Mantello embodies his secrets and simmering volcano of hatred and imminent flight perfectly. There is only 16 years between him (54) and Field (70), yet in this household, divisions between mother and children are spurious. They are survivors on a battlefield wearily circling each other.
The familial intimacy is in knowing which poisonous barbs can land most hurtfully, and which disappointments can be cleaved most closely to the bosom.
This is a memory play, as Tom says (and which Adam Silverman’s lighting design animates so beautifully), with an invisible fifth character, Amanda’s long-departed husband, a phone company worker who just disappeared one day—as Tom himself will do.
And so, to ward off these ghosts of violent change from the past and the ones Amanda can surely see in the future, she has retreated to a past she wishes was both present and future, to a feverishly executed desire for “gentleman callers,” of which she was once besieged. “So what are we going to do the rest of our lives?” she asks Laura. “Stay home and watch the parades go by? Amuse ourselves with the glass menagerie, darling? Eternally play those worn out phonograph records your father left as a painful reminder of him?”
In this dysfunctional home, the most functional person is Laura. She is seen as damaged by her family, and Gold has cast a disabled actress in her role. Ferris has muscular dystrophy and cannot stand; she raises herself in and out of her wheelchair and walks—crab-like—across the stage.
Field and Mantello help with her wheelchair, but Ferris’s brilliant performance—quiet intensity, the much-loved fulcrum of her family—anchors the whole show. It shouldn’t, in 2017, be so radical to see a disabled actor so central to a Broadway show, but it is, and Gold makes Ferris’s disability a focus in the most skillful, least patronizing or didactic way.
The play opens with Amanda hoisting Laura’s wheelchair up some steps to the stage, and then helping Laura herself up the same steps. As Gold told The New York Times, “She doesn’t have to act like she’s vulnerable, because the vulnerability is the prop—there’s a wheelchair that gets to do that vulnerability for her. She gets to have agency, and she gets to be the kind of woman I’d rather see on stage.”
Laura protects Tom as much as he protects her. There is a beautiful scene where he comes out one night, she lets him in to the house, and they fall asleep together. Both Amanda and Tom fear for Laura’s future, Amanda because she fears her daughter will be not loved, and Tom because he knows he will leave too and not be able to protect her from their mother’s madness.
In other productions I have seen, Laura’s mental frailty sets her apart. Ferris’s character is of stronger and more certain mind, and her disability is powerfully and personally owned too. She is an island of sanity away from her mother. The family member who is set apart is the most normal one of all. She is the Wingfield lynchpin, its best hope.
If Amanda ever was maternal, we cannot see it. Pride and a destructive neediness have warped her so much that Tom rebels against her cloying games most violently. He works at a factory though dreams of being a poet.
At home he is told to sit up straight, eat this, drink that, behave like this, don’t do that, comb his hair this way, stop smoking so much. And, should he not awaken as his mother desires, then he must—as she trills—“Rise and shine.” This she does after one rough night, with a sadistic clanging of spoons against cups.
When his mother chides him for never being home, Tom brilliantly spits out his derision at her invention of theories about his whereabouts—that yes, he is indeed a gangster involved in all kinds of lowlife activities. (In fact, you expect, although it is never made explicit, that Tom may be meeting men.)
Wittrock, most recently seen (just as sexily as he is here), alongside David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig in Othello at New York Theatre Workshop, is of course not the gentleman caller Amanda would want.
She imagined a dashing, suave gentleman with good prospects. Jim O’Connor seems easygoing and folksy, but he is not only that, sadly. He had noticed Laura years before at school when all she could do was notice him, and in the play’s most intense scenes, the two reconnect now—with Laura’s power and charisma again commanding Jim as it does her own family.
A power cut means candles light the stage, and sprinklers from above douse the setting with water. The characters appear as ghosts. The stage is wreathed in shadows: Rarely has there been a better setting for Daniel Johnston’s “True Love Will Find You in the End.”
You will hold your breath as Wittrock and Ferris edge around the past: he not recalling her, she feeling invisible to him then and now; how Laura told him she had pleurosis, and how Jim misheard that as Blue Roses. Jim doesn’t recognize how isolated and set apart Laura feels, and judges her to have an inferiority complex. His insensitivity is witless and blustering rather than cruel.
Of course, their reconnection can lead to no good place, even though Amanda misunderstands it, leading to more mad projecting of fantasies and desires: “Oh, we’re going to have a lot of gay times together! I see them coming! Mmm, just breathe that air! So fresh, and the moon’s so pretty! I’ll skip back out—I know where my place is when young folks are having a—serious conversation!”
Her self-delusion crashes as it must, and so does the family, and at the end of The Glass Menagerie, Tom gives another shorter monologue—the family is as unmoored at the end as it was in the beginning.
Instead, in this raw, crisp, and haunting piece of theater, just as Williams intended, there remains for Tom and the other Wingfields just shards—of glass animals, rainbows, and a yearning for connection when all around is torn and unrooted. But Laura, you feel this time, has most definitely survived it all.
The Glass Menagerie is at the Belasco Theatre, until July 2. Book tickets here.