Sam Gold’s revival of The Glass Menagerie, the fifth major production of the play in New York since 2005, is such a one. He has decided to remove all of the historical relevance as well as the scenery from this classic Tennessee Williams’ memory play. What he has also done is remove all of the poetry and all of the emotion in a play that on the surface would seem director proof. Ultimately, the production is more a director’s exercise in seeing how much he can cut from a play that tells a realistic story in a lyrical manner. A pity as his cast has two-time Academy Award winner Sally Field returning to Broadway after an absence of 15 years, two-time Tony Award winner Joe Mantello, Finn Wittrock (Theatre World Award and Clarence Derwent Award for Death of a Salesman), and debuting actress Madison Ferris.
The Glass Menagerie is told as a memory play, that is, Tom Wingfield narrates when he lived with his mother, Southern belle Amanda and disabled sister Laura (described as having “a little limp”) in St. Louis during the spring of 1937, the year of the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. His father who is only seen in a photograph (which is absent here) has been absent a long time. Having finished his education at the height of the Great Depression, Tom has only been able to obtain a job in a shoe warehouse, one that he detests due to its boredom and lack of adventure. He spends his nights at the movies – or so he tells us.
Tom pays the rent but his mother supplements their income with odd jobs. His somewhat older sister Laura has been living as a recluse since having had pleurosis in high school and plays old records or polishes her glass collection of small animals. Amanda who has ambitions for both her children never leaves them alone, always giving advice, telling anecdotes from her past and prodding them to try harder.
Guessing that Tom is contemplating leaving, Amanda offers him a deal: if he will bring home a gentleman caller who will marry Laura, he may go off wherever he likes. To fulfill his obligation, he brings home Jim O’Connor, his best friend from the warehouse. Although the evening starts off well enough, it doesn’t turn out quite as has been expected. The title, is of course, a metaphor for all the illusions of the Wingfield family, just as fragile as pieces of glass.
Director Gold has the actors enter from the audience in modern street clothes including tee shirts, blue jeans, sneakers, all except Field who wears a green dress. Ferris, who famously has muscular dystrophy, and uses a wheelchair, has to crawl on to the stage on all fours while the others lift the wheelchair up from the orchestra. All that is on stage in Andrew Lieberman’s scenic design is a long folding table and four chairs. A metal cabinet on stage right houses the props needed for the play: a Victrola, glasses, plates, etc. Tom uses a sixties portable typewriter. The back wall of the stage is painted black but the pipes are clearly visible. The intermission has been eliminated and the play proceeds through its seven scenes without a break even though a certain amount of time passed from when Tom tells his mother about the gentleman caller to his visit.
As the entire stage is open at all times, the sound has a hollow ring to it as though the actors were shouting at each other across a vast open space despite Bray Poor’s sound design – or possibly as a result of it. In Adam Silverman’s lighting design, Gold leaves the house lights on throughout the play (they dim slightly to half-light after about 15 minutes) until the final scene when the theater is plunged into darkness as Tom has neglected to pay the electric bill as his mother asked him to do. From then on the story is lit by candlelight, the only scene in which the audience does not see the other theatergoers – and the only scene that weaves its spell in this production. A three-story rain effect is used twice to great distraction – like leaving the lights on. Although the family describes entering and leaving the apartment by using the fire escape, Amanda sends Laura out to get butter for breakfast, even thought it would not be possible to take a wheelchair down that way. At times it appears that the production has simply thrown out the script and done it their way.
The casting is a bit bizarre as it raises problems not dealt with in the play. Mantello with his grey hair and glasses looks about twice the age of the character. If Gold has taken Williams’ proviso of the time being “Now and the Past,” Tom should remain an observer in his own story. However, the only scene in which he does so, he is center stage and the scene distractingly goes on over and around his head so to speak, rather than his being off to the side watching his life as in memory. At all times he seems angry and bitter which gives the play a slightly sour note. His delivery during Tom’s iconic monologues is off-hand and rushed, turning them into throw-away speeches.
Fields’ Amanda is a lovely performance of a woman living in the past who is desperately trying to hold her family together. Unfortunately, Gold does everything he can to sabotage her performance. Though she is from the Delta of Louisiana which she tells her children repeatedly, Field is not allowed to use a Southern accent until for a moment when she greets the Gentleman Caller. The it is dropped again like an affectation. The cotillion gown that she takes out of the trunk to dress up for his visit looks like nothing but a pink tutu in Wojciech Dziedzic’s costume design, making her comic rather than pathetic. The huge stage dwarfs her and the exquisitely layered performance she is giving.
Ferris may be a very fine actress but she is miscast as Laura despite that they both have physical disabilities in common. Laura is described as fragile and shy. Ferris plays her as strong willed and resolute. It is hard to believe that her Laura would have been undone by her life experiences. The visit of the Gentleman Caller rises to her first dance where he tells her that she is not made of glass and will not break. For whatever reason, the dance is skipped and all Jim does is spin her arm around, diluting the metaphor of the scene. It is difficult to know how to take the description that Laura has only a little limp and that her problems are mostly in her imagination. Here Laura’s problems are so much bigger. Laura’s glass menagerie should be in full view of the audience but here she occasionally takes a few pieces of glass and puts them on the floor, not the visual image that the play requires.
Wittrock is suavely bland as Jim O’Connor, a self-deprecating extrovert. While he embodies the ambitious character whose career has not been as quick as he had hoped, he never really sweeps Laura – or us – off her feet which should precipitate the final tragedy that occurs.
Sam Gold has received acclaim working on new contemporary plays like Annie Baker’s John, The Flick, The Aliens and Circle Mirror Transformation, Lisa Kron’s Fun House, and Will Eno’s The Realistic Jones. With a period play like John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, he has not been so successful. Here he seems to have decided to try ideas out that had not been attempted before with this script. However, if you love the play, you will want to give this production a miss – unless you wish to see it in a form you never imagined possible. Stripped of its poetry, The Glass Menagerie loses most of the magic that Williams’ play embodies and simply becomes an acting and director’s workout like in a scene study class. It seems to have been attempted simply for the sake of trying something new.
The Glass Menagerie (through May 21, 2017)
Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.glassmenagerieonbroadway.com
Running time: two hours and 10 minutes with no intermission