Ordinarily, Zachary Quinto is not one to read reviews, he told The Observer in a recent interview, but “some of these were a little hard to avoid.” Specifically, he is referring to the love letter that The New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote to The Glass Menagerie on Valentine’s Day—214 miles outside Mr. Brantley’s jurisdiction. It amounted to a red carpet rolling from Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater to the doorstep of Broadway’s Booth where the Wingfield clan now nests, resting up to be born again—maybe even anew—Sept. 26.
“I’m just thrilled there was such reports around the production in Cambridge,” Mr. Quinto said. “And thrilled to come in with that energy to New York.”
Thrilled seems an understatement—Mr. Brantley called Mr. Quinto’s Broadway-debuting performance “the finest Tom I’ve ever seen.” This “foolish dreamer” and would-be breadwinner, Tom Wingfield, is the closest Tennessee Williams came to a self-portrait—a youth constrained by apron strings and the responsibilities that generally go with being the (only) man of the house.
Cherry Jones (“perhaps the greatest stage actress of her generation,” The Times gushed) is Tom’s mother, Amanda Wingfield, an ex-Southern-belle-of-the-ball fretful about how her two grown and broken children will find their places in the world. Tom’s sister, the emotionally and physically crippled Laura, gives Celia Keenan-Bolger a chance to exercise the child-woman persona she displayed so effectively as Molly in Peter and the Starcatcher, and her gentleman caller, full of empty ambition and Dale Carnegie platitudes, is played by a blustery Broadway beefcake Brian J. Smith.
This version of The Glass Menagerie physicalizes the play’s language—it’s the work of John Tiffany, who directs the text, and Steven Hoggett, who directs the movement behind the text. These two have been conspiring in recent years to bring new dimensions to theatrical works, Black Watch and the Tony-winning Once being prime examples of their astonishing teamwork.
“The way John and Steven approach a play is to break it open and explore it,” Mr. Quinto said. “I was really rooted in a connection to Tennessee, to what it is Tom is actively struggling with. It’s active exploration—physically. We talked about the role physically.”
The play’s newfound physicality is immediately apparent. Mr. Brantley led with it, in fact, noting that “that quick, backward step” during Tom’s opening monologue is the movement of someone “pulled out of the present and sent stumbling into a past.”
“There was a discussion about how I would enter the room, how Tom goes from his present-day narrative self to the world that then consumes the next two hours,” Mr. Quinto recalled. “Initially, I think I came into the room from a side angle, then we explored what it would be like if I melted into it, if I fell back into it and it enveloped me in a way. Different gestures came from that, all of them collaborative. Everyone, including the other cast members, had input. We’re all sort of in that room together, sharing ideas and thoughts and feelings to find the clearest way to tell the story.”
The physicality of each character is important to the production, he said. “Each one of us brought our own relationship to where these characters live in our bodies, then really worked to gauge and calibrate our performances with each other from that point of view.”
It was a complex process and all the more impressive given that Mr. Hoggett had only five days to work his magic on the production. “We worked with him for three days, then he was gone a couple of weeks, then he came back for two more days. He and John went through an idea of what they wanted to accomplish, what goalposts they had to hit, in the time we had.”
The two directors worked as a kind of tag team. “When Steven left, John assumed responsibility for appropriating certain gestures. Steven then came back and enhanced that and shaped things a little bit differently. Steven’s such a physical extension of emotional life. He worked with us doing various exercises that required us to internalize certain dynamics or emotions and find a physical vocabulary for them. Then, for that physical vocabulary, we would explore ways in which to fold that into scenes and the fabric of the production—sometimes in a more choreographed or deliberate way, other times in just unconscious ways where a single gesture or look could be evocative of something that came out of one of his exercises. It’s a very subtle, organic way of working.”
Throughout, the process remained collaborative, rather than competitive. The two directors, Mr. Quinto said, “worked as one. They’re incredible collaborators. Each of them is so talented and confident in their point of view and in their unity that it was seamless.”
As befits a memory play, the chronically inventive set designer Bob Crowley has set afloat the Wingfields’ cramped St. Louis tenement in a sinister black goo that they peer into while huddled fearfully against the world.
“I know what I think it means,” Mr. Quinto said. “But it does nobody any good to listen to that, because it’s about the feelings that it elicits for the audience. What it means and where it takes place is really up to each individual audience member.
From the actor’s point of view, it’s an intense experience. And just as much so for the audience. “I think what Bob really taps into is the sense of void. This production causes the audience to lean forward, and then it reflects back at the audience these waves of emotional resonance. There’s nowhere for us to hide on stage, and there’s nowhere for the audience to hide from being confronted by what is happening on stage.”
A certain spareness has helped with this effect, Mr. Quinto said, specifically Mr. Tiffany’s decision to use few props. “The only props that are tangibly in the production are things that were spoken of—things that we use, things that we refer to. Otherwise, they are representational. We create a dinner table through gesture. Tennessee talks about this, about maintaining an emotional resonance but not feeling beholden to having the actual Frigidaire in the corner.”
Mr. Quinto had never seen a full production of The Glass Menagerie until 2010 when the Long Wharf revival with Judith Ivey transferred to Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater. With some justification (Tom being the young Tennessee), Patch Darragh painted the son in lavender lite—as did John Malkovich, opposite Joanne Woodward, in Paul Newman’s 1987 movie version.
“It’s certainly not about that for me,” declared Mr. Quinto, who happens to be an openly gay actor. “I think that there are so many other things going on. He’s a character who hasn’t fully realized himself yet. Whether gay or straight, he is up against a critical point of self-examination. That’s about more than just who he sleeps with or who he’s attracted to. Those are elements that are folded into my performance in one way or another. I leave that up to an audience to experience.”
When he arrived in a bitterly cold Cambridge last January for rehearsals, he felt a sense of adventure about the project. “I think any play that has been done as often as this one benefits from actors who are willing to come to the table and not know what will be on the other side. I had no idea what kind of production of The Glass Menagerie I was going to be a part of. John and I had talked about it but only briefly. I didn’t know how it would unfold. There was a great satisfaction in that for me—in the trust that was required.”
Doing the play out of town first has been an advantage, he said, allowing everyone to focus on the creative, rather than the commercial. “I feel like I have an incredible tapestry to continue to weave and a foundation to stand on that allows me to come with nothing but excitement and gratitude for the chance to keep working on it. As an actor, as long as I can keep working, I’m happy.”