Lessons in Revival: The Glass Menagerie Has Been Brought Back Brilliantly

But 'The Film Society' hasn’t aged well

2034February 01, 2013

Zachary Quinto in ‘The Glass Menagerie.’ (Photo by Michael J. Lutch)

“This play is memory,” Tom Wingfield says by way of introduction. He doesn’t say that it’s a memory play, or that it’s how he remembers things, but that it is memory itself. He’s standing outside his childhood home, an alley apartment in St. Louis; he’s older and wiser and returning, not necessarily physically, for a visit. “I have tricks in my pocket; I have things up my sleeve,” he says. “But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”

In The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams’s 1944 breakthrough masterpiece, Tom Wingfield is spelunking his own memory, going back to the time, during the Depression—“that quaint period, the thirties, when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind”—when his own family became too much to bear, when he, like his father before him, left his mother and sister, went out on his own. He’s telling us his story, the truth of it disguised as illusion.

In the extraordinary revival that opened Thursday at the Booth Theatre, the director John Tiffany and his designer, Bob Crowley, emphasize the ephemerality of this memory-conjured version of the Wingfield apartment by placing it, or the relatively few bits of furniture that suggest it, on elevated disks hovering just above an inky pool of liquid coating the stage. It is a moment, a vignette, picked from that inky blackness, and its characters, at times, seem on the verge of falling into that abyss.

As Tom’s introduction ends and he shifts into a role in the play—a character in his own memory—he literally stumbles into his past. Mr. Tiffany has previously displayed his interpretative gifts in New York with Black Watch and Once. As in both of those plays, he is working once again with choreographer Steven Hoggett, who also worked on Peter and the Starcatcher and on Menagerie has a “movement” credit. The stumble is that Hoggett touch, a small bit of physicality that captures so much.

Zachary Quinto and Cherry Jones in 'The Glass Menagerie.'

Zachary Quinto and Cherry Jones in ‘The Glass Menagerie.’
(Photo by Michael J. Lutch)

But unlike in, say, Black Watch, where the triumph was in the movement, in this Menagerie, the triumph is in the performances. For his near-perfect production, Mr. Tiffany has assembled a near-perfect cast.

That begins with the incomparable Cherry Jones, always a tour-de-force performer and here an indomitable but also unusually sympathetic Amanda Wingfield. Amanda, Tom’s mother, is the villain of Menagerie, of course, a mother so smothering and delusional, so irrationally single-minded in her determination to set her children on what she sees as the right path, that she drives Tom away from his home and family. Ms. Jones’s performance is the voracious heart of the production, but she also keeps Amanda from being a monster. She’s domineering, yes, but there’s a tender desperation to it. In Ms. Jones’s characterization, you don’t forget that the goal of all of her scheming and needling is protecting her daughter.

Zachary Quinto plays Tom, and, with his tall, rugged good looks, he fits the part of the merchant seaman this prodigal son has become. More important, he plays a confident counterpoint to Ms. Jones’s Amanda, quieter but equally willful, also dedicated to Laura but ultimately determined to live his own life. There is real fury in the tension between Tom and his mother, but in him there is also, as in his mother, real sensitivity. It is inevitable that they will be driven apart.

What is perhaps even more remarkable in this production is how well-drawn the play’s two lesser characters become, with the delicate Celia Keenan-Bolger giving a small sliver of hidden strength to the shy and crippled Laura Wingfield—she is disappointed but not crushed when the evening with the gentleman caller doesn’t go as she’d hoped—and Brian J. Smith imbuing Jim O’Connor, the gentleman caller, with sweet decency. Their long scene together—in which Jim, more than anyone in her family, succeeds in bringing Laura out of her shell, only to break her heart—is, in this rough play, sweetly tender and moving.

There are only the tiniest moments here that seem false, and those are, ironically enough, the moments that are most characteristic of Messrs. Tiffany and Hoggett. They are the short sequences of choreographed hand gestures—a stylized pantomime of setting a table, for example—that appear as interstitials between scenes. You see there the smoothed jerkiness of Black Watch, and, while I assume the point is to emphasize the dreamlike state of this memory, the result is a bit of stagecraft that looks lovely but feels odd.

But that is the tiniest off-note in this otherwise astonishing production.

While Mr. Tiffany is making a 60-year-old play feel so eye-openingly fresh, the Keen Company, at Theatre Row, has left its revival of The Film Society, a Jon Robin Baitz play that’s set in 1970 South Africa, feeling as stodgily aged as its characters’ Sansabelt bell-bottoms. Directed by Jonathan Silverstein, Keen’s artistic director, The Film Society opened Tuesday night.

Mr. Baitz is the author of Other Desert Cities, the knockout secrets-and-loyalty family drama that was a Pulitzer finalist a year ago, and the creator of the praised ABC drama Brothers and Sisters. The Film Society is his first full-length play—a success in Los Angeles, it debuted here in 1988 at the Second Stage—and it’s based in part on his expatriate childhood in South Africa.

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Euan Morton and Mandy Siegfried in ‘The Film Society.’ (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

It focuses on two old-school chums, Jonathan (Euan Morton) and Terry (David Barlow), who work as teachers at the down-at-its-heels ruling-elite prep school where they had been students. The school is losing students, short of money, physically decrepit. If its slow-motion collapse is representative of the country’s, Jonathan and Terry, both scions of wealthy families, stand in for two divergent reactions white South Africans could have to apartheid. Terry is turning increasingly radical; the play opens with the scandal caused by his having invited a black leader to speak at the school’s centenary. Jonathan is a milquetoast—he can’t even keep his film club alive or get the right movies delivered for it—who believes that change can come slowly and gradually, without upsetting anyone. By the play’s end, he has gained confidence and competence by settling into his place in the power structure, determined to hang onto and protect his, and his class’s, perquisites.

Mr. Baitz’s writing is characteristically sparkling; it’s smart, funny and engaging throughout. It’s also a little overdetermined. Terry is egged on by his dedicated wife, Nan (Mandy Sigfried), Jonathan by his calculating matriarch of a mother (Roberta Maxwell), and the dying establishment is represented by the headmaster (Gerry Bamman), who is going blind, and his deputy (Richmond Hoxie), who has spinal cancer.

The ultimate problem with this revival is that apartheid fell in 1994, and, nearly 20 years later, the quintessentially white-people problem of how best to rebel against it while living within the system lacks much dramatic urgency. The most currently interesting aspect of the play—Jonathan’s transition from passive dissenter to engaged enforcer—is also the least developed. It’s hard to see why this is being revived now, nor is any of this helped by Mr. Silverstein’s dutiful direction, which provides no new insight or interpretation on the material.

The Film Society is, by now, a memory play, too. But it’s one just as easily forgotten.