Star Power Illuminates “The Glass Menagerie”

16 Feb

The Full Cast of the Glass Menagerie (Image courtesy of A.R.T.)

The Full Cast of the Glass Menagerie (Image courtesy of A.R.T.)

A version of this review previously appeared in The Citizen newspaper

This may come as a bit of a shock, but in the 32-year history of the American Repertory Theater, the celebrated pillar of the local theatre community has never staged a Tennessee Williams play. Armed with some serious star power thanks to Cherry Jones as Amanda Wingfield and Zachary Quinto as her son Tom, Tony Award-winning director John Tiffany is delivering the production of William’s most autobiographical play Cambridge has been waiting for.

Neither Jones (Awake, Ocean’s Twelve, 24) nor Quinto (Heroes, Star Trek, 24) are strangers to traversing between the stage and small screen. The challenge and inimitable beauty of live theatre, especially one featuring a small and talented cast, is recognizing that the audience’s own experiences and openness to emotionally engage allows for a play set in 1937 to feel fresh and urgent.

Sometimes an audience member’s ability to draw upon personal perceptions and experiences can work in an actor’s favor. From Amanda’s elegant dresses that have seen better days, to the way her tired hair struggles to maintain its curls while she effortlessly strings together a series of biting criticisms, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my own grandmother.

Born in 1920’s Winona, Mississippi, my Grams will never let you forget that she’s a true Southern Belle, representing the last of a dying breed even though life hasn’t always been so kind to her. Just as Amanda exhumes a faded, ostentatious dress from her charmed youth when expecting company, my grandmother still primps for hours and talks wistfully of her modeling days before heading to her job as a WalMart greeter.

Watching Jones gracefully float across the cramped apartment, I can see why Tiffany was so insistent on recruiting her. There are few actresses still in the game who grew up among these larger than life Tennessee matriarchs, and it’s quite the coup that Jones agreed to come to Cambridge.

Conversely, the audience’s previous experiences can give an actor an unfair disadvantage. Quinto delivered a solid performance, but as he lurked in the shadows generously provided by gifted lighting designer Natasha Katz, I wanted to shout “Watch out Laura! Sylar is about to cut open your head!” Fortunately, I think a majority of the audience remembers him from the JJ Abrams Star Trek reboot, and unless Quinto throws on some pointy ears, there’s no confusing the tumultuous Tom with the stoic Spock.

As Tom warned in the opening monologue, the play shifts tone when he brings home a coworker (Brian J. Smith) to meet his sister Laura (Celia Keenan-Bolger). “Being an emissary from a world of reality that we were somehow set apart from,” the Gentlemen Caller’s unbridled charisma brightens up the drab apartment. As he attempts to psychoanalyze the emotionally crippled Laura, the chemistry between the two is undeniable.

The strong cast worked well together, but the true star of the play was the set designed by Bob Crowley. The one constant throughout the play is an imposing and winding fire escape that serves as a constant reminder that restless Tom is forever trapped in this suffocating apartment because of his love for his sister. This beautiful sculpture dominates the sparse set, and wouldn’t look out of place next to the Chihuly currently in the MFA Boston’s lobby.

Besides the rare but distracting line flubs, first by Jones and the next night by Smith, there’s little to criticize. Instead, I’m compelled to consider the missed opportunities. Tom emphasizes the surrealist nature of the play at the very outset, “Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic. In memory everything seems to happen to music. That explains the fiddle in the wings.” The illusion of Laura seamlessly slipping through the couch to enter and exit the stage reminds us that each character eschews the real world in favor of the safety of their preferred illusions – going to the movies for Tom, glass animal figurines for Laura, and Amanda constant retelling of the time when she received 17 gentlemen callers in a single day. I’m glad the focus was on the strong performers and the script by Williams, but perhaps too much restraint was shown and a few more whimsical touches would have further developed the memory play theme.

Another unexploited opportunity was utilizing the placid reflecting moat meant to emphasize how the characters and apartment exist only in memory. Considering how much effort must have been spent on creating a reflecting pool with black goo, a few more risks by the director could have made this a definitive production of this iconic Williams’ play.

Fortunately, the Loeb Drama Center isn’t afraid to take a few risks by allowing audience members to enjoy a cocktail from their seats. As an agitated and inebriated Tom stumbles about, you will be grateful you got that Berkshire Mountain Corn Whiskey on the rocks so you can get in the spirit and toast to a praiseworthy production.

The Glass Menagerie at the Loeb Drama Center runs through March 17. Tickets available at ART.

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