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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

The Glass Menagerie — Booth Theatre, New York

Photos by Michael J. Lutch

Photos by Michael J. Lutch

Pure genius reigns on the Booth Theatre stage as Cherry Jones gloriously demonstrates how stylization, diction, timing, and clarity conspire to make a character larger than life and piercingly human at the same time.

     Her performance as Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’s classic, “The Glass Menagerie” is a towering achievement that shows the dominating and vulnerable side of a woman who will maintain her standards and preserve social graces while fighting like a lion to survive as the tenuous reality of her ordinary life in working class St. Louis, circa 1938, encroaches.

      “Life is hard,” Amanda tells her grown children, a daughter in whom she’d like to instill courage, and a son in whom she’d like to excite ambition. Life, she will say in various ways, is not kind to the weak or the gentle, not welcoming to the passive or the lazy.

      Amanda is none of those pejorative things. She was raised to be a flower of the South, a girl who attended cotillions and entertained gentleman callers from the rich, genteel families of planters and merchants that thrived in the Mississippi delta. She learned the art of conversation and other charms that might serve her well in the cat-and-mouse game of flirtation. Rather than choose from among more suitable suitors, Amanda succumbs to a man whose smile and ease make him impossible for her to resist. By the time her children are ages eight and five, her beau, now her husband, an employee of the telephone company Amanda says “fell in love with long distance,” abandons the family, and she is left in St. Louis to scrape out a living and endow her unwilling son and daughter with some of her indomitable spirit.

      Cherry Jones finds a way to address all aspects of Amanda. The Southern belle and gifted storyteller are winsomely evident, but so is the feisty, harping, conniving woman who has to summon and inculcate the penchant to live.

      Most endearing is the way Jones also makes the Booth audience a party to Amanda’s doubts and fears. Amanda may act as if she can conquer or overcome all, but  she worries and suffers through many periods when she feels beleaguered and concerned that, for all her ingenuity and spunk, she will be defeated.

      Jones provides a remarkable portrait of a remarkable woman, and the Booth stage radiates with her simultaneously witty and heartbreaking turn as Amanda.

     Jones is not alone in making John Tiffany’s staging of “The Glass Menagerie” so special, so exceptional. She is joined by a cast that, individually and as an ensemble, is as varied, as complete, and as artful as Jones is in portraying their characters. The simmering discontent and constant struggle between dutifully containing himself or busting loose that Zachary Quinto displays as Tom, the easy Midwestern friendliness and diplomatic honesty Brian J. Smith offers as James, the gentleman caller, and the aching sweetness and subdued intelligence Celia Keenan-Bolger exudes as Laura add depth and empathy to Williams’s memory play. Tiffany has led his sterling troupe to theatrical perfection, a “Glass Menagerie” to be savored and appreciated for all its subtle flavors, in the way Amanda says a well-cooked meal should be enjoyed.

      Jones meets and aces a challenge that has attracted American actresses since Laurette Taylor originated Amanda Wingfield in 1944, giving Williams his first important hit, one that catapulted him to instant fame and anticipation about what he would do next. “The Glass Menagerie” revived Taylor’s career, and Amanda has become a rite of passage for major stars in the American theater. I have seen Geraldine Fitzgerald, Maureen Stapleton, Julie Harris, Jessica Tandy, and Penny Fuller, among others, in the role. Jessica Lange is another who brought it to Broadway. Katharine Hepburn played it on television.

      Each woman stamped the part with her skill at interpretation, but Cherry Jones may be the best of a rather stellar and enchanting lot. Jones has had made a recent habit of earning  a Tony for Best Actress in years ending in “5.” Her turn as Amanda Wingfield puts her in line to receive the award a year early. She will certainly be the in the running.

       The simplicity with which she plays the complex Amanda is why. Jones finds the Amanda’s core in each scene while remaining consistent and drawing a full, vibrant character. Nothing Amanda does or says is out of kilter with anything we’ve seen previously or are yet to see. Jones’s portrayal is total, multi-faceted but of a whole. Amanda is a woman to be reckoned with, but also a woman who engenders some pity for the grandeur she’s lost and the burdens she has to face. Jones lets the Booth audience see every bit of this. She stints on nothing. The entertaining hostess, and the driving mother, with sympathy that soothes and remonstrances that wither, are integral parts of the same woman. The person who contributes to the family revenue by serving samples of food at markets or inveighing her friends to renew magazine subscriptions, is the same who nurses every dime but will spend to make a party festive or to help her children attain the training they need to thrive. Amanda’s virtues and failings are of a piece, and Jones bravely acquaints you with all of them, brimming wistfully when Amanda tells a story or recalls the past, waxing sarcastically when Tom exasperates her or Laura cannot be motivated. Jones reveals all sides of motherhood, and all sides of womanhood. She is so real when, interestingly, Jones doesn’t play Amanda in a natural style but in a dramatic, theatrical way that takes advantage of language and gesture, timing and articulation that blend into a creation so authentic you love and admire Amanda while remaining aware of her badgering, destructive traits.

      Zachary Quinto’s Tom makes a great foil for Amanda  while establishing a character so full-blooded, he commands attention in his own right.

      Quinto is a broody, restless Tom who, having inherited the charm of both of his parents, can be easygoing and funny while aching to go off on his own adventures and have an independent life, free from the obligation to support his mother and sister. Like Jones, Quinto marries the various sides of Tom to create an interesting and intricate character. Tom is a man waiting for his chance, longing to make his own way through a world that doesn’t include his stultifying job at a shoe warehouse. Quinto makes you root for yet be wary of Tom. You can see his steam rise and realize he doesn’t regard himself as a son or brother but as a man who has places to go and things to do, if he ever figures out where and what they are.

      Brian J. Smith’s gentleman caller provides a great contrast to the Wingfields. Not guarded or uncertain at all, he is the open-hearted, open-minded soul of America, immediately at home in a situation, direct while being sensitive and tactful, and an all-around great guy who impresses each of the Wingfields in his own way. He is especially kind and encouraging to Laura, the young woman who has been primped and coached to receive her first gentleman caller.

      Smith’s Jim is all pep and understanding. He is good company, and he leavens the mood in the Wingfield home and the Booth stage with his good-natured, well-intentioned presence.

      Celia Keenan-Bolger is touching to the point of being heartbreaking as Laura, the self-conscious sister who prefers to rearrange her collection of small glass animals and listen to records on the Victrola  rather than prepare for or face life in the way Tom and Amanda must.

     Keenan-Bolger is a quiet, tentative Laura who is self-conscious even around her mother and brother, both of whom she adores and between whom she mediates to keep peace and work towards some kind of harmony.

     The effect of Keenan-Bolger’s performance is amazing. She makes you develop an affection toward Laura, equal to the way Amanda or Tom feel about her. Jim does not have to pretend to see qualities in Laura or to enjoy spending time with her. Keenan-Bolger endows her with a sweet, unaffected nature, an intelligent simplicity that is winning in a way one might not expect.

      The masterful performances, along with Williams’s sentimental and poetic, yet shrewd and amusing writing, make Tiffany’s production a memorable gem that sets a standard for this classic from this time forth. He is aided in his wizardry by the perfect costumes by Bob Crowley, evocative lighting by Natasha Katz, and haunting music by Nico Muhly.

      “The Glass Menagerie” runs through January 5 at the Booth Theatre, 251 W. 45th Street, in New York. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $137 to $77 and can be ordered by calling 800-432-7250 or going online to www.telecharge.com.

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