Broadway Review: “The Glass Menagerie” at the Belasco Theatre

Broadway Review: “The Glass Menagerie” at the Belasco Theatre (Closed Sunday May 21, 2017)
By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Sam Gold
Reviewed by Michele Willens
Theatre Reviews Limited

“The Glass Menagerie,” Tennessee Williams’ 1944 memory play, seems to have just left our stage … or is that my own memory playing games?

In fact, Cherry Jones took on the iconic role of Amanda Wingfield – and was nominated for the Tony – in 2014. Three years prior, Judith Ivey delivered a lovely and highly praised performance in a Roundabout production. In 2005, Jessica Lange portrayed Amanda in a disappointing revival that featured the play’s four characters doing much of their talking behind gauzy curtains.

Obviously, “The Glass Menagerie” is a theatrical gift that keeps on giving. It clearly challenges actresses to re-imagine the garrulous, often overbearing Amanda. It also inspires directors to find their own ways of interpreting Williams’ instruction that “nostalgia is the first condition of the play.” Well, director Sam Gold has given us a controversial and fascinating visit with the Wingfield clan, who are now residing at the Belasco Theatre. This time around, Sally Field is the matriarch struggling to raise her grown children in Depression-era St. Louis.

Gold’s wildly inventive choices include an almost bare stage, keeping the house lights on for the first half of the intermission-less production, placing a 50-something actor in the role of the narrator-son, and most notably, casting a wheelchair-bound actress in the role of the painfully shy daughter whose only companions are her hand-crafted glass figures.

The minimalist staging – only a Victrola sits alongside a table and chairs – works here, as this is a family that does not have much. The lighting – designed by Adam Silverman–may initially cause discomfort, but it is appropriate: all up when the narrator is recalling the past, gradually going down as the action progresses. And in the final scenes, wherein a special guest comes to dinner, candlesticks do the job in a rather stunning fashion.

Now, the performances: Son Tom is portrayed by Joe Mantello, whose age and t-shirt clad style (“I have things up my sleeve,” he promises, but where is the sleeve?) strike some as odd, particularly as he returns to his more youthful years. But I bought it. (“I give you the truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion”) After all, when most of us look back, we see ourselves as we are now rather than the way we were. Mantello’s work here is witty and heartfelt, though it ignores the gay identity of the playwright he is to become.

The other male character is portrayed by Finn Wittrock. He is the gentleman caller, who represents so much unrealistic hope (“the long delayed but always expected something to live for”) for mother and daughter. Wittrock seems goofy and over-confident, bypassing the complexity of a young man who peaked in high school and misses his glory days.

Then there is Madison Ferris as Laura, making her Broadway debut. She is efficient, but hardly luminous, and something here feels slightly exploitive. While the casting idea is admirable, (Ferris suffers from muscular dystrophy) I am not convinced it aptly fits the playwright’s intentions, (“You are not crippled, you have a slight defect,” insists mother to daughter. At another time, Laura speaks of having “walked all day.”) The part has always been played with a clear touch of lameness, but this conceit is difficult to fully comprehend.

Finally, there is Sally Field, a sure Tony nominee, who has given us a sympathetic and contemporary-feeling Amanda. Here is a mom valiantly trying to support her “kids,” while also worrying constantly, whether it’s about her daughter’s romantic future or her grown son’s tendency to swallow before properly chewing. And there are the understandable moments of pure frustration. (“Why can’t you and your brother be normal people?”) Field also manages to find humor in unexpected places, suddenly become the Southern belle she once was, and prove a fearless hoot when she dons what can only be described as a giant pink tutu.

This is not a “Glass Menagerie” for everyone, as you will no doubt surmise. But with an open mind, you will most likely find it moving. And with little stage adornment, it is easier to relish the poetry that was Tennessee Williams. “The past seems like everlasting regret,” says the narrator. I will not regret having seen this production, nor do I doubt that the Wingfields will remain everlasting.