Throwback review: “The Glass Menagerie” at the A.R.T.

Originally published on my old blog on March 14, 2013

“The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams
Loeb Drama Center at the American Repertory Theater, Harvard Square
Through March 17 – sold out, standing tickets only

3031 Bolger Smith wide 800

Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura and Brian J. Smith as Jim. Photo by Michael J. Lutch.

A few memories to start us out. This is a memory review.

Senior year of high school, playing “Catchphrase” in a hot tub with a bunch of theater nerds, it was what we had to guess. To make us say it, the player first made us guess “the girl from ‘American Beauty’” (Mena Suvari) and “Ginger Spice” (Geri Halliwell). Mena-Geri. Menagerie.

Freshman year of college, playing charades with some new friends, whom I eventually realized were artless jerks who made photocopies of the bad papers of the students they tutored and brought them back to the dorm to laugh at. The theater sign: pulling the curtains up. Drinking—glass. There’s no other play about glass. At least not one we 18-year-olds knew.

Sophomore year of college, living with my aunt and uncle while interning for a small Quaker magazine: saw “The Glass Menagerie” at a community theater in Phildelphia. I was 20 and had never read it, although, being an English major, I knew it was something I should have read, and something I should search for all the meanings in the world.

My aunt said, well, it was community theater, but it was fun.

I’d thought it was haunting—like watching ghosts. I’d liked the actors. But maybe I was too busy identifying the play as great to distinguish the performances.

But if there’s one thing we learn from this play, it’s the strength of memories. Their strength even as they waver and mutate as our mind makes room for new experiences.

The A.R.T.’s production has been getting amazing buzz. Cherry Jones won a Tony for “Doubt” a few years ago. Zachary Quinto is the dreamy young Spock in the new Star Trek films. Laura was nominated for a Tony as well. The Gentleman Caller graduated from Juilliard. The run’s been constantly sold out.

It left me a little cold. Or maybe, not cold enough.

Part of this is unwillingness to let go of my initial impression of the Philadelphia performance. I’ve had this problem in the past. But it wasn’t just that.

My main beef is with the two main characters, Cherry Jones as Amanda and Zachary Quinto as Tom. It would be ridiculous to deny their skills. But their delivery made for a weaker impact at the play’s most important points. In that way, I suppose my critique is more of the director, John Tiffany.

 Zachary Quinto and Cherry Jones. Photo by Michael J. Lutch.

There was too much focus on Tom: his memory of his family needs to be what defines him. In this production, it’s not. Quinto’s performance was great. But I didn’t agree with what he was performing, if that makes sense. For example, I thoroughly enjoyed his interactions with his mother. They were rich and playful—counterintuitive to the outcome. He was too petulant, not brooding enough to bring the venom out. He performed well, but the interactions didn’t carry the weight they needed to.

Cherry Jones’ Amanda was fabulous, though more than a little reminiscent of Hyacinth Bucket. Was she too likeable? Could be. Her southern-ness, however, was diminished by the other characters’ similar accents. It seems silly to place so much importance on that. But it makes her less special.

The pacing at the end diminishes the impact of Tom’s guilt and his family’s desolation. The sadness isn’t there.

The cold points that hit hard, that I will remember: dynamic lighting, warm on one character, an icy, ghostly hue on another. Laura’s lingering presence during many of her silent scenes. The flooded stage, creating memory islands. The chilling moments when a character would venture over and stare into the abyss, that abyss finally disturbed at the end.

“Blow out your candles, Laura….” No one blows out the candles. No one takes action—maybe it’s good, maybe time just blows them out. But I’m not sure. I suppose that’s the point.

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