Sally Field‘s citric, unvarnished performance as Amanda Wingfield is so riveting you may find your focus pulled from the larger picture created by Sam Gold‘s shocking revival of The Glass Menagerie, which opened tonight at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre. Stripped bare of the accoutrements of poverty Williams so carefully articulated in the notes for his 1945 “memory play,” Gold (Fun Home) takes more seriously Williams’ prefatory caution that “everyone should know nowadays the unimportance of the photographic in art: that truth, life, or reality is an organic thing which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest, in essence, only through transformation” free of the “exhausted theater of realistic conventions…”
Thus we have, instead of a rundown St. Louis tenement apartment dominated by a couch, a fire escape, a neon sign advertising the Paradise Dance Hall and, overlooking it all, the photo portrait of a long-departed father – instead of all that, we have a plain metal table; the suggestion of a fire escape, a few props including a toy-size neon sign, and no Dad, nowhere (and yet omnipresent, as the playwright intended). “The theater in which The Glass Menagerie is performed,” Williams wrote, “becomes the theater of the mind.”
So: This is not your parents’ Glass Menagerie, nor even your modernist revival, of which there have been many superb examples, most recently the haunting version brought to Broadway just three years ago led by Cherry Jones as Amanda. For some theatergoers, this latest revival – designed by Andrew Lieberman (set), Adam Silverman (lights) and Wojciech Dziedzic (costumes) – will be more of a nightmare than a dream of memory. Not for me.
Field (Hello, My Name Is Doris; Lincoln, etc.) returns to Broadway, having made her debut in another shocker, Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? Her Amanda is not so much befogged by disappointment or illusion as she is broken by loss and commonplace, daily struggle. She’s been abandoned by her husband, sees a lifetime of caring for her lame daughter Laura (Madison Ferris) and the fading image of her son Tom (Joe Mantello), her only lifeline, as he prepares to follow in his father’s footsteps out from under her suffocating presence and their suffocating circumstances. When Tom brings home Finn Wittrock’s charming Gentleman Caller, Jim O’Connor, only to see that possibility for Laura dashed, Field’s reaction is not a swoon or the back of the hand to the forehead. It’s electric anger and raw fear, registered in the tightening of face, the pursing of lips, that are rare in a Glass Menagerie production. This is a revival with the gloves decidedly off.
That point is driven home not only by Field, but by Gold’s complete conception. Mantello, in his best performance since Louis Ironson in Angels In America, plays Tom with cocky toughness verging on hostility – some of it even leeching through Tom’s sad, deep affection for his sister. Wittrock (LaLa Land, The Big Short) is handsomer and smoother than most Gentlemen Callers I’ve seen, and that somehow adds more punch to Jim’s confession that he won’t be coming round to court Laura.
And then there is Laura herself. Rather than downplay Laura’s infirmity, Gold has made it, too, larger than life by casting the fiercely talented, physically challenged Ferris. Performing mostly from her wheelchair and moving only with obvious difficulty, Ferris defies us to agree with Jim’s gentle reassurance that Laura’s clomping around in high school was all in her head. In this production, Laura’s memories are made the most real of all. We aren’t allowed to romanticize her fear and isolation. It’s there before us, and it’s discomfiting.
And so we have a Glass Menagerie that doubtless looks like nothing in Tennessee Williams’ imagination, and yet which in its way fullfills the playwright’s deepest desire, which was to invert the comforting conventions of “realistic” theater and shake us to the core. That, Sam Gold has done, and then some. This is why we have revivals.
Bryna Turner’s new play Bull In A China Shop is having its premiere at Lincoln Center Theater’s great developmental space, the Claire Tow, the tiny house atop the Vivian Beaumont. Turner’s is a new voice and one worth paying attention to, even if this play has the didacticism and crudeness that betrays a writer still finding her voice. Tracking the true-story partnership of Mary E. Woolley (Enid Graham), an academic and suffragist who served as president of Mount Holyoke College in the first four decades of the last century, and Jeannette Marks (Ruibo Qian), her lover and an aspiring writer and teacher, the story unfolds against the tumult of wars abroad and political turmoil at home.
Woolley – especially in Turner’s conception, Graham’s effective performance and Lee Sunday Evans’ fluid staging on an elegant set by Arnulfo Maldonado – was a flame throwing activist out to reform education and politics. Her tactics placed her in constant peril, though her growing international reputation and the diplomacy of her number two, Dean Welsh (Lizbeth Mackay), give her some protection. There’s a ratatat quality to the choppy scenes that undermines the story, as does a subplot involving a student with a crush. Still, I never lost interest in either of these uncelebrated (at least until now) women.