John Tiffany is a magician. His powers of enchantment as a theater director can leave an audience spellbound. He can conjure thoughts, ideas, even people, out of thin air. His sleight-of-hand can make you think you’re revisiting a Tennessee Williams play you know better than all those other high school drama assignments. And then with a slight flourish, he takes your breath away.
For seventeen weeks at the Booth Theatre, Tiffany’s melancholy magic can be witnessed in The Glass Menagerie, Williams’ classic story of memory and familial responsibility. This harshly beautiful rendition of the play, which originated earlier this year at the American Repertory Theater, puts to shame all other recent Broadway revivals of American classics.
The talent involved is staggering. Zachary Quinto plays Tom Wingfield, the man who returns home from his mindless factory job everyday to an overbearing mother and crippled sister. Tom is the Williams character who most resembled Williams himself – abandoned by a telephone repairman father who “fell in love with long distance”, and torn between providing for his family and providing for his soul. Quinto makes a strong narrator, but the chemistry with his stage family is what makes his Tom remarkable. How miserably he trudges up the fire escape steps, how visibly grateful he becomes to see his sister there.
Celia Keenan-Bolger, perfectly cast as Laura, imbues her every onstage moment with a quiet terror that makes her impossible to ignore. Childlike and dressed to look more so, her Laura is like a delicate bird forever perched on a branch, able, perhaps, but refusing to fly.
She is often subtly clenching an object nearby as if holding on for dear life. Her fragility provides a natural counterpoint to Cherry Jones’ imperiously charming Amanda. Her tour de force performance blends adoration for her children with exasperation over their shortcomings. Although the Missouri drawl presents occasional challenges, Jones plays catharsis better than anyone. Her Amanda is motivated and haunted by the disappearance of her husband, for whom she interestingly appears to feel no anger.
His absence is a fact: accepted, unquestioned, like a dull weight. It seems redundant for Williams’ proxy narrator to mention the play’s father figure is its fifth character, but The Glass Menagerie does not shy away from symbols and its own affinity for them. The heavy-handedness works here; Laura’s tiny glass unicorn rests precariously in the hand of the gentleman caller (a superbly convincing Brian J. Smith) and the audience can hardly breathe.
The soft ache of these scenes is heightened by Nico Muhly’s deeply moving orchestral music. The same goes for Natasha Katz’s lighting, which in one striking scene shifts, during Amanda’s rambling histrionics, to allow Tom a moment of tantalizing reflection. Bob Crowley’s set and costume, also excellent, are committed to scarcity rather than period detail, as befitting a semi-dreamlike abyss suffused with regret.
Tiffany works with choreographer Steven Hoggett to create a distinct form physical poetry that imbues the story with an almost surreal ambiguity. Expressive, unexpected movement during a moment of stillness in an otherwise on-going scene beautifully physicalizes the act of remembrance. (The same technique was deployed in the international sensation Black Watch, which depicted soldiers reading their loved ones’ letters with a gorgeous, unnerving sign language.) A raised hand, a slight stumble, a flick of the wrist reveals an inner depth at which Williams’ dialogue can only hint. It does help, of course, to have some of the most eloquent passages in the 20th century American theater canon. The play’s sumptuous, mournful coda – “For nowadays the world is lit with lightning” – is itself worth the price of admission.