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Reviewed by:
  • The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
  • Kenneth Elliott
The Glass Menagerie. By Tennessee Williams. Directed by John Tiffany. American Repertory Theater. Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 8 March 2013.

In the published production notes for The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams asserted that his play could be staged with unusual freedom because it is a “memory play,” and he reiterates this point in the opening stage directions where he declares it to be “nonrealistic.” As noted by numerous scholars (and directors), Williams’s expressed desire is at odds with the play he wrote. The plot, characters, and dialogue of The Glass Menagerie are firmly rooted in realism, and its tone is highly romantic. Tom, the central character/narrator, says as much at the outset when he describes the play as “sentimental.” Unfortunately, John Tiffany, best known for the superb Black Watch and the Tony Award–winning musical Once, seemed to have embraced Williams’s stage directions at the expense of the script in his bold, if misguided production at the American Repertory Theater. By imposing a dark, highly expressionist vision through the design elements, staging, and characterization of Tom, he smothered the play’s humor and humanity to create a nightmare rather than a memory.

This unsettling dreamscape vision was most vividly expressed in Bob Crowley’s set—a spare, elegant arrangement of hexagonal platforms that appeared to float in a pool of black reflective liquid surrounded by a void, and dominated by an ominous, distorted fire escape that extended heavenward in forced perspective. The actors entered from below, wearily climbing stairs as if they were emerging from hell. There were no walls, almost no hand props, and very little furniture. The framed, “larger-than-life-size photograph” of the long-absent father, whom Tom calls “a fifth character in the play,” was omitted (although it is repeatedly referred to during the play), and, in contradiction to the title, Laura’s collection of glass animals was reduced to a single unicorn. The “silver slipper of a moon” appeared to rise out of the reflecting pool like a neon shark fin. The arresting image certainly emphasized the utter isolation of the Wingfield family, but it created a cold, abstract environment that provided little context and no suggestion of the oppressive, densely populated lower-middle-class St. Louis neighborhood where they were forced to live in squalor on Tom’s meager salary from his warehouse job.

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Hexagonal platforms floating in a black liquid pool and a towering fire escape dominate Bob Crowley’s set for The Glass Menagerie, with Zachary Quinto (Tom), Cherry Jones (Amanda), and Celia Keenan-Bolger (Laura).

(Photo: Michael J. Lutch.)

Nico Muhly’s eerie, modernist musical underscoring telegraphed grim foreboding rather than the emotional, nostalgic feeling Williams described as the “first condition of the play,” and there was no period dance music wafting from the dance hall across the alley. Zachary Quinto as Tom delivered the famous opening monologue in a sing-song, stylized, almost somnambulistic manner that suggested dread rather than an invitation to the audience to experience “truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” In the midst of the monologue he stepped backward, almost falling by force into the living room of his nightmare. His sister Laura (Celia Keenan-Bolger) emerged magically from the upholstery of the enormous sofa as if it were giving birth to her, a peculiar trick entrance so unexpected that the audience audibly reacted. Tiffany effectively employed a similar surreal device in his production of Black Watch, when dead soldiers from the Iraq War made their entrance by ripping through the felt of a pool [End Page 584] table. The moment was beautifully integrated into the highly choreographed, postmodern style of that production, but here the busy staging overwhelmed Tom’s narrative introduction to the play.

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Amanda recalls her glorious debutante days while showing off her ancient ball gown to her daughter Laura. Celia Keenan-Bolger (Laura) and Cherry Jones (Amanda).

(Photo: Michael J. Lutch.)

Tiffany’s frequent collaborator, choreographer Steven Hoggett, was credited with “movement,” an unusual position in a production of The Glass Menagerie. His...


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