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Glass Menagerie

"I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion." — Tom's introductory monologue that opens the door to varied interpretations.

"So what are we going to do with the rest of our lives? Stay home and watch the parade go by? Amuse ourselves with the glass menagerie, darling? Eternally play with worn-out phonograph records your father left as a painful reminder of him? — Amanda, in despair for the Wingfield family's future, after discovering that Laura has not been attending the business school she was enrolled in.
Joe Mantello, Sally Field, and Finn Wittrock (photo:Julieta Cervantes)
Since The Glass Menagerie established Tennessee Williams as our great poet of the contemporary American theater it has brought stellar Amandas, Lauras, Toms and Gentleman Callers to many stages. That includes frequent Broadway revivals (The seventh now playing at the Belasco comes just three years after its last one). It adds up enough productions to rival some Shakespeare plays.

The authentic characters and the lyricism of their dialogue have made some of the gold dust invariably rub off on even second- rate productions like a 60s community theater production that I went to see because one of my neighbors who had been bitten by the acting bug.

Naturally, as the play has been a magnet for actors, it has also inspired directors to look for new approaches to staging it — a fine idea given that Tom's introductory monologue ( "I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion") is like an invitation to do so. Since most theater goers have by now probably seen at least some version of all these productions, they'll be open to a fresh, as yet untried interpretation. That said, however, Sam Gold's The Glass Menagerie may be more than they bargained for.

Mr. Gold has built his reputation as one of our best young directors, especially of new works (notably, Annie Baker's plays and the musical Fun Home ). Last year he successfully ventured into a new look at Shakespeare with his production of Othello . But unlike that re-thought Shakespeare play, his The Glass Menagerie brought back my less happy memories of Gold's directorial vision of Ibsen's Doll's House during the Williamstown Theatre Festival's 2011 season in which he tried make a case for bringing the Helmers' story into a more contemporary era. He turned Nora into a born-to-shop, glamorous Norwegian housefrau even as husband Torvald still referred to her in decidedly old-fashioned bird-related endearments. Worse yet, he allowed the upstaged a golf club (yes, a golf club!).

The way that Doll's House saw Gold give himself permission to ignore the often striking inconsistency between words on the page and what's seen on stage, is also the case for this The Glass Menagerie.

Still, given the play's very recent Broadway run, it's understandable why Gold decided to follow in the footsteps of Ivo Van Hove at whose Amsterdam Theater this Menagerie was initially staged. Why not indeed? After all, Van Hove's well received stripped down Broadway productions of Arthur Miller View from the Bridge and The Crucible were widely applauded.

Despite repeating the sort of poor choices made in that Ibsen production , this Glass Menagerie is intriguingly different and never boring. The problem is that this vanhovization-à-la-Gold is so extreme that the directorial vision has upstaged the author's poetic magic. While even Mr. Gold's most mouth-agape choices couldn't assail this virtually indestructible play, what ultimately held my attention was seeing just what bizarre business he would come up with next, and how the actors dealt with it.

The really glaring misstep is casting an actually disabled actress to play Laura. I'm all for giving actors with disabilities a chance to perform. However, Madison Ferris who plays Laura doesn't just have a limp as Williams' emotionally and physically fragile Laura does, she's literally wheelchair bound with muscular dystrophy.

So much is made of Ferris's struggling to get in and out of her wheelchair, and her mother and brother (Sally Field and Joe Mantello) caring for and worrying about her, that watching these struggles becomes painfully voyeuristic. It also tends to takes us out of the play. Most egregiously, it goes completely counter to the author's characterization and the text. To give just a few examples: No sooner have we watched Amanda carry the crippled on to the stage and help her get into her wheelchair, she declares Why you're not crippled, you just have a little you just have a little defect — hardly noticeable." It's equally incongruous to have Laura say she was walking around in the park when Amanda demands to know what she did while pretending to be at her typing class.

The audience tended to react to these incompatibilities between what's on page and stage with laughter. But this is not a comedy,

I miss the staircase leading up to the Wingfields' apartment and the big picture of the ever present though never seen "telephone man who fell in love with long distances" leaving his wife and children to survive on their own. However, I can live with that as well as the rather ugly shelf contraption set designer Andrew Lieberman has put at the side of the minimally furnished stage from which props are brought out by Amanda and Tom as needed.

But what's insurmountably difficult and disturbing are some of the intrusive visual additions — like diddling with the wonderful scene in which Amanda is seen on the phone trying to sell a magazine subscription. Instead of keeping this as the solo it deserves to be, we now have Laura stretched out on the kitchen table with Tom exercising and massaging her leg.

That unnecessary extra task for Tom, as well as his duties as prop deliverer make him a too prominent and different character. But then so is casting Joe Mantello who's almost as old as Sally Fields as the narrator. Mantello, in recent years best known as a director, is a good enough actor to handle the additional duties as well as Tom's less dreamy persona with aplomb. Yet, the obvious age similarity (with Amanda) and difference (with Laura) comes off as more troublesome than inventive.

Though Sally Field has played Amanda before, it was in a different, and more traditional production. Consequently, this isn't a case of her having had a chance to deepen her portrayal, but a whole new effort of trying to do justice to this interpretation of super-delusional, more stressed and bitter single mother. Unfortunately, director Gold hasn't helped her tone down the unrelieved shrillness, nor has he guided the inexperienced Madison Ferris tap into Laura's vulnerability.

That leaves the most satisfying performance to this production's Gentleman Caller, Finn Wittrock. It's too bad, however, that the wonderful scene between him and Laura is so completely dark that I doubt anyone not sitting as far front as I did could see their faces. And while I'm quibbling about visibility for the audience, your ability to see what's going on during the scenes at the sides and below the stage will depend on where you sit. (Another similarity with the above mentioned Doll's House production).

Though individually, both Mantello and Field, have excellent moments, ultimately this cast fails to merge into a satisfactorily coherent and cohesive production. As I left the Belasco , I couldn't help wondering how Mr. Mantello would have dealt with directing Menagerie from a more contemporary perspective.

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The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Sam Gold
Cast: Sally Field (Amanda Wingfield), Joe Mantello (Tom Wingfield), Finn Wittrock (Jim O'Connor), Madison Ferris (Laura Wingfield)
Sets: Andrew Lieberman
Costumes: Wojciech Dziedzic
Lighting: Adam Silverman
Sound: Bray Poor
Stage Manager: Martha Donaldson
Running Time: 2 hours and 5 minutes without intermission
Belasco Theatre

From 2/07/17; opening 3/09/17; closing 7/07/02 -- changed to closing 5/21/17
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 3/12 press matinee

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