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A CurtainUp Review
The Glass Menagerie
By Elyse Sommer
Ivey is as badgering and annoying as any Amanda Wingfield you're likely to have seen in the many live and filmed productions since The Glass Menagerie's 1944 premiere. But she also brings a refreshing robustness and depth to this much coveted role of the mother of all dominating and protective mothers.
Not having seen Laurette Taylor's benchmark Amanda, I can't make any comparisons for you. But why compare Ivey's performance with that of any of the numerous well-known thespians who've followed Taylor's footprint? Let's just say that even as she gets under our skin, Ivey's Amanda reveals the passionately caring mother whose husband's desertion ("he was a telephone man who fell in love with long distance") have left her in a permanent state of aggressive anxiety about keeping a roof over her family's head. She relentlessly nudges the son who yearns for more than his warehouse job to nevertheless "rise and shine" each day. She scuffles to bolster his wages by selling magazine subscriptions on the telephone. She takes comfort from the Southern Belle girlhood that shaped her. And she invests her performance with poignancy, poetry and a good deal of welcome humor.
Amanda, the first of Williams' down on their luck Southern Belles, has always been, and still is, the linchpin role of the playwright's ' first big success. But the revival that has landed on the Roundabout's Laura Pels stage after a previous production at Long Wharf Theatre has been staged by Gordon Edelstein to reconceive the role of Tom, Williams' alter ego. It's a most satisfying and watchable concept.
True to the play's tag, a memory play, Tom now begins his narration after he's left St. Louis tenement where he lived with his mother and sister. We find him in a drab New Orleans hotel room trying to tease the script that was to become The Glass Menagerie from his typewriter. As he struggles to give shape to his memories, the dull gray wall becomes transparent and his characters and memories become visible and then break through the door. The hotel room is seamlessly transformed into the St. Louis apartment. As Amanda and Laura rush back into Tom's consciousness, and he segues between being an active participant and also the author-observer.
Fine as Ivey is, she now shares the spotlight with an equally memorable Tom as performed by Patch Darragh. His tom segues effortless between the young man who is struggling with his family obligations and inner demons (the allusions to the nature of all his nights at the movies somehow more clearcut here than I remember in previous production) and the somewhat older writer/observer. In this production he has made his escape but is still struggling to free himself from his painful memories and put them to creative use. The bottle of liquor at his side an omen of yet another demon that was to dog his life.
Given the play's dreamlike aura, Edelstein's concept works beautifully and doesnt take anything away from the play. Michael Yeargan's spare scenery makes the transition between the hotel room and the St. Louis apartment smooth and dramatically effective. This double functioning set has no fire escape to which Tom goes for a smoke and some relief from the suffocating life inside. When Tom simply steps to the front of the stage it's clear that he's in a different place. While purists may miss that more metaphorically rich fire escape, the unembellished set underscores the drabness of the Wingfields' life. Generally speaking though, this new concept remains true to the Wingfield family's story.
The plot of that story moves forward along its well known and inevitably tragic path: The first act establishes Laura's inability to do anything other than obsess over her collection of glass animals. Amanda's rage and despair at learning that Laura hasn't attended her business course since the first day of class gives way to a last desperate scheme to take care of her fragile daughter's future by having Tom find a marriagable "gentleman caller." Hoping that his mother's scheme might work and enable him to leave, Tom caves in to her pleas and invites Jim O'Connor (Michael Mosley). Frantic and over fussy preparations follow. The revelation that Jim happens to be someone Laura had a crush on in high school and actually spoke to a few times does nothing to prevent her from having an usurprising nervous spell that's followed by a surprisingly joyous scene with that very down-to-earth yet touchingly kind young man — only to have that joy quickly turn to ashes.
Keira Keeley looks just right for the part and is an aptly sensitive Laura, though Mr. Edelstein has encouraged her to go just a tad overboard on the limp and the neurotic ticks. Michael Mosley's Jim has the get-up-and-go spirit for a believable "emissary from a world of reality" that the Wingfields were somehow "set apart from." I have no quarrel with how he handles Jim's succumbing to his dreamy side for the impulsive moments of genuine feeling and the hope dashing aftermath. Yet, with no disrespect to Mr. Mosley, I couldn't help wishing that I might have seen Jim as played by Josh Charles at Long Wharf since I'm a huge fan of The Perfect Wife in which he plays Will Gardner (the TV serial rivals Law and Order as a casting couch for stage actors is probably the reason he couldn't join the rest of the cast in New York).
As for the candle lit staging of Keeley and Mosley's big scene, this is likely to divide the audience into those who love it and those who don't. With the dinner party suddenly cast into darkness courtesy of a power company intolerant of unpaid bills, this entire scene is lit only by a candelabra and a couple of single candles. It's the sort of stunning visual stage picture that directors love but audiences often find frustrating since they can't really see the actors' faces even if sitting in the best seats in the house. However, since Keeley is at her finest in this scene and it really is breathtaking, I found myself parking my own reservations about this school of lighting.
Unlike a 1950 film version which concocted a happy ending of sorts for the story, this Glass Menagerie ends as intended by the playwright, with a door slamming on the Wingfield family's togetherness with the finality of Ibsen's A Doll's House. However, the production overall has more laughs than any I've ever seen, which turned out not to be a bad thing. I agree with Judith Ivey's comment in an interview with Randy Gener ("Ivey Tower" on My Roundabout Blog) that hearing the audience laugh a lot would probably please Tennessee Williams since he was known to laugh often and at odd intervals during performances of his plays. No wonder Ivey felt free to play up what makes Amanda as hilariously funny as she is heartbreaking.
For more about Tennessee Williams see our Williams Backgrounder which includes links to his other plays, including other Glass Menagerie productions reviewed at Curtainup and a collection of Glass Menagerie quotes.