We tend to reduce Tennessee Williams to a soundbite in our brains. That soundbite is most likely to be Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski yelling, “Stella!” or maybe his sister-in-law rattling on about the kindness of strangers.
Williams’ arguably second most famous play, The Glass Menagerie is the one with the crazy mother rattling on about “gentleman callers,” the “terribly shy” daughter – based on Williams’ own mentally ill sister, and the son with the artistic temperament working at a shoe factory.
Can this self-proclaimed “memory play” be rescued from our own distorted memories of it?
The answer based on this most recent production now at the Booth Theater would be a resounding YES.
In the first moments when Zachary Quinto appears on the stage at Tom, I had reservations. The structure is artificial as he reminds us, but once he sat down on the family couch and his sister (ably played by Celia Keenan-Bolger) appeared as if by (stage) magic beside him, all doubts lifted. The audience was transported to the dingy depression era flat in St Louis and the sister and mother, Tom had left behind years before.
That Quinto was able to pull off this dual characterization – Tom as young man and Tom as somewhat older one looking back – should be no surprise. This is after all a man who managed to make Mr Spock his own, while also channelling our memories of the original.
Of course the star of the evening is Cherry Jones, and she is extraordinary. Her Amanda may talk of her old days as a Southern belle before she made the mistake of marrying the wrong man, but she is a survivor who wants to ensure the survival of her children. She may talk of her the past, but she lives in the present. She’s a pragmatist who knows Laura must be taken care of and Tom must have his own chance to spread his wings. After realizing that business school won’t work for a daughter who can barely leave the house, and that her son won’t support them forever, she comes up with the plan to marry her off. That someone might see Laura’s qualities, might even think of her as an old-fashioned girl, a homebody, that Laura might under the right circumstances blossom, is not insanity. The tragedy of the play is that for a moment, Laura does bloom. For a moment, we all see her as Amanda does, and once that moment is past we all see the blackness ahead.
Celia Keenan-Bolger has the least flashy role and handles it with great finesse and naturalness. There’s not a false note here, and we see Laura’s joy as she begins to finally come alive in the presence of another human being who is not a member of her family, and her devastation when she realizes that joy is not her fate.
Brian J Smith as the Gentleman Caller was another stand-out – creating a full-bodied human being and not a theatrical construct. With his Matt Damon like looks, his charisma, and versatility (I’d seen him last year in a much different role in The Columnist), it’s incredible that Smith is not a movie star, but thank the gods he’s working in theater.
The four of them act together act as though they’d been an ensemble for years. The result was simply the most authentic theater experience I’ve had at a Broadway “show” in years. There was nothing canned here, nothing in the timing that stank of sit-com. It was all happening live and everyone in the audience felt it. Bravo.
If live theater means anything to you, get on a plane, train or automobile and get thee to the Booth Theater soon because the final performance is February 23rd.
Hot tip: We got our tickets at the TKTS booth at South Street Seaport where the lines are short and you can pick up matinee tickets the day before the show.
(Don’t see a tip jar but really want to say thanks? Go check out Marion’s books. They’re on sale now for less than a coffee-drink at one of them fancy cafes.)