“The Glass Menagerie” again? Why? Why does Broadway need another revival of Tennessee Williams’ familiar masterwork, the seventh since this achingly moving drama ignited his career in 1945 and so soon after the Cherry Jones / Zachary Quinto production in 2013?
Here’s why. The “Glass Menagerie” that Sam Gold staged with the equally magnificent Sally Field, Joe Mantello, Finn Wittrock and the especially remarkable Madison Ferris is like none we have seen before. The style is not poetic, the edges are not soft nor dreamlike, and the heart-shredding family dynamics are not literally placed in the St. Louis tenement that Williams set in the ’30s.
And yet, the unspooling — presented in one two-hour act without the usual intermission — is as true to what Williams called a “memory play” as any I have known. Consider this the indie version, if you need a label — timelessly contemporary and shot full of raw insight into past and future productions.
Mantello, better known as a star director than an actor these days, is riveting as Tom, the playwright’s semi-autobiographical stand-in. Instead of simply introducing himself to us as the narrator of Tom’s “memory play,” Mantello — his hair age-appropriately silver and wearing a T-shirt and jeans — bounds briskly onto the plain black hole of a stage. As he talks, he brings on the handful of period props as if he were directing his own story.
Gold, the Tony-winning director of “Fun Home” and the Daniel Craig “Othello” Off-Broadway, wants us to see Amanda, Tom’s strong-willed mother, and Laura, his fragile sister, through the loving and regretful, sardonic and bitter filter of Tom’s memories. The set, by Andrew Lieberman, is little more than a rehearsal table and chairs, surrounded by what looks like the theater’s back wall.
Field, with her deceptively complex beauty, has all of Amanda’s annoying obsessions. Until Amanda puts on a huge pink princess dress to entertain Jim, the man she calls Laura’s Gentleman Caller (the exuberantly bemused and touching Wittrock), however, we don’t know how delusional this hardworking, pragmatic woman can be.
Then again, Amanda refuses to call Laura a cripple, preferring that she has a “little defect.” In other productions, Laura has little more than a limp and a debilitating shyness. But this Laura is in a wheelchair and is played with enveloping naturalness and daring by Ferris, a gifted actress who herself has muscular dystrophy. This Laura crawls in and out of her chair laboriously. When she dances with Jim, they are both squatting, just one indelible memory in this revelatory version of this memory play.