Since the first chapter of my dissertation is on Tennessee Williams, I’m always eager to check out productions of his work. Earlier this year I got to see a wonderful and captivating production at New World Stages of The Two Character Play. As the actors who put on the titular play, Brian Dourif and Amanda Plummer did a great job of bringing to life a pair of wounded and unstable siblings trapped in a dilapidated theater. Needless to say, the chance to see Cherry Jones in ART’s production of The Glass Menagerie — the very text that is at the center of my chapter on Williams’s movie fandom — was something I couldn’t pass up, especially given its buzzy premiere in Boston earlier this year.
I’m probably much too immersed in the text to give an unbiased account of the production but I will say this: it is beautiful and haunting. The minimalist (if not minimal) stage design, with still water surrounding the stage and an Escher-like fire escape that disappears high above the stage, frames the entire play as happening, as Tom Wingfield tells us “in the scene of memory.” Celia Keenan-Bolger (as Laura) taps into the tenderness and fragility the character requires. Zachary Quinto imbues Tom with a comedic physicality that underscores his own discomfort (he sits lankily on the couch, he crouches over the dining-room table) in the St Louis apartment he shares with his mother and sister. The direction helpfully recovers much of the modernist touches of Williams’s play-text, calling the actors to work in balletic-like movements into ordinary scenes (cleaning and setting a table, for example), heightening the lyrical nature of the piece. My only qualm with the production was Jones herself. As Amanda, Jones goes for a helicopter mother you can laugh away — and indeed she had the entire theater in stitches for most of the play — rather than fear. To me, this had the effect of blunting the complicated relationship Tom and Amanda have in Williams’s text; we’re supposed to understand Amanda is trapped in her own past who uses her light-hearted anecdotes to lilt away the reality of her “peculiar” children, but in Jones’s hand, she’s no more than a petty, if charming, mother. The sharpness of her zingers and the incisive nature of her passive aggression get swallowed in this production by Jones’s all-too-forgiving compassionate performance.
Watching the production though, was a treat; it made me see the play anew. If you’re interested in seeing what I’m doing with Williams’s text, watch this mini video-essay I produced for the Stretching the Screen conference at SFSU back in October: