Although the Roundabout's revival of "The Glass Menagerie" has a stellar cast, led by Julie Harris, the real star is something called The English Language, once a familiar figure on Broadway, now relegated to increasingly infrequent appearances.
Director Frank Galati puts language center stage as soon as the play begins, where he projects the opening stage directions above the Wingfield living room: "...entered by a fire escape, a structure whose name is a touch of accidental poetic truth, for all of these huge buildings are always burning with the slow and implacable fires of human desperation."
When, a moment later, Tom, played by the gifted actor Zeljko Ivanek, utters the line, "I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion," we are under the author's spell.
Tom, who narrates the play, is very clearly a surrogate for the author (Thomas Lanier Williams, aka Tennessee). In his languid manner of speaking, his supple movements and, most importantly, in the irony that often sparkles in his eyes, Ivanek suggests Williams without stooping to outright imitation or caricature.
There is, after all, a great deal of irony and cruel humor in "The Glass Menagerie." We are invariably touched by the scene in which the pathetically vulnerable Laura Wingfield has a "date" with Jim, the boy she had a crush on in high school. Her brother Tom has brought him, a fellow factory worker, home. Their mother, who still lives in a world of Southern gallantry, calls Jim a "gentleman caller."
The gentleman caller's visit, however, can only end disappointingly. Far from a beau bearing flowers and soft words, Jim is a go-getter; an early believer in the commercial possibilities of a new technology called television. Inevitably, he is not interested in the sickly girl whose world revolves around a collection of glass animals.
If this production does not mine all the richness in this great play, it nevertheless conveys much of its beauty. Julie Harris conveys Amanda Wingfield's desperate strength as she tries to marry off Laura. Williams himself called Amanda "heroic;" and Harris suggests this. What she misses is the tender but comic poetry of Amanda dwelling in the Old South that she seems not to have noticed has died. Too often Harris seems a mere scold.
Calista Flockhart is a touching Laura. Kevin Kilner conveys the power of the Gentleman Caller with easy grace.
The physical production is simple. Mimi Jordan Sherin's lighting adds considerably to the play's magic.
Was Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" the first "memory" play? I forget. Certainly 50 years ago it made waves in American theater that can still be felt today.
That mixture, wilder than Wilder, of realism and symbolism, those characters deeply felt, sharply etched, lost in the miasma once poetic and affected. That new dramatic voice, complex in accent yet authentic in tone.
It was a recipe for revolution, although oddly enough the critics of the day were perhaps most impressed by the actors and the acting.
They were more familiar at the time, although today "The Glass Menagerie" itself seems almost dangerously familiar - a modern classic not yet absolutely sure of its place on history's shelf.
The latest production, which arrived at the Roundabout Theater last night, has been staged by Frank Galati, and has Julie Harris as Amanda Wingfield - a role to which her entire career now seems to have been hitherto directed. It is a part which is as Harris as tweed.
How do you stage the play itself? There are problems - a number of slightly different variants, not to mention an earlier version "Portrait of a Girl in Glass" - and what do you do about the explicit stage directions with its carefully planted visuals that are to be projected on misty settings?
Many stagings have avoided these, including the New York original with Laurette Taylor, and the 1948 London version I saw with Helen Hayes directed by Gielgud. Other directors, such as John Dexter, have been truer to Williams in their fashion.
Galati has made some significant cuts, but uses the projections, and Loy Arcenas' beautiful setting (itself a homage to Jo Mielziner), Noel Taylor's apt costumes and Mimi Jordan Sherin's crepuscular lighting give the play its precisely vague ambiance.
Williams' play is about time and memory, prison and escape, about the pain of difference and the cruelty of indifference, and concerns of an over-genteel Southern mother Amanda (Harris); her crippled daughter Laura (Calista Flockhart); her son, Tom (Zeljko Ivanek); and his friend at work, a possible suitor for Laura, Jim (Kevin Kilner).
The nuances are delicate to the point of exquisite, yet the writing repeatedly returns to a harsh realism, as Williams threads his strands of pink and purple silk through burlap.
All this Galati and his cast have very well caught - the speeches properly drift out into those daring plain and fancy poetics at the heart of Williams.
Even though two of the roles are fundamentally miscast, the acting is excellent. Flockhart is obviously too exultantly beautiful for Laura - she would be far too close a call for most Gentleman Callers - although she acts with just the proper shy radiance. And Kilner's assertive Jim too attractive, too sincere - they seem a couple made for each other.
But Harris, her voice fluting with the eccentricities of a faded nightingale and her maternal feet set solidly in pragmatic reality, is right. As is Ivanek's brusquely extravagant Tom, narrator, character and, presumably understudy for a playwright who early on learned how to use a fire escape.
"The Glass Menagerie" is the American theater's most exquisite mea culpa.
When it appeared on Broadway in 1945, it established Tennessee Williams as one of the country's foremost playwrights. You do not have to probe too deeply, however, to find a brother who believes he let his sister down badly, or a son who admits he was driven to distraction by his mother and devoutly wishes it weren't so.
Williams called "Menagerie" a memory play, and memory invariably distorts facts and reshapes events. Still, all the love, fury and frustration he felt toward Rose, his troubled sister, and Miss Edwina, his formidable mother, worked their way into the script. In emotional terms, it is almost pure autobiography.
Other Williams dramas are more exotic. None are quite this heartbreaking, although you'll have to bide your time for a while at the Criterion Center before the play, staged by the Roundabout Theater Company, exerts its considerable pull. This worthy but imperfect production stars the ever-welcome Julie Harris as Amanda Wingfield, that most infuriating of gracious Southern mothers. In the role of her son, Tom (read Williams himself), an aspiring writer trapped in a dead-end warehouse job, Zeljko Ivanek takes some getting used to, however.
So does the decision by Frank Galati, the Tony-winning director of "The Grapes of Wrath," to hold an old-fashioned magic lantern show on the back wall of the Wingfields' dingy St. Louis apartment. Crucial lines of dialogue, nostalgic black-and-white photos, even stage directions come into focus periodically, then fade away.
"The sky falls," announces one projection, just before it does, metaphorically speaking. A bouquet of white roses keeps reappearing, then like a sudden prophecy, turns blood red. Mr. Galati has not come upon this idea by himself. Williams's script calls for "slides bearing images or titles," although they were omitted from the original Broadway production and most productions since then have followed suit.
It's easy to understand why. The projections (designed in this instance by John Boesche) are mostly a distraction, causing you to look away from the actors but telling you nothing that the actors can't tell you just as easily on their own. "Love?" asks one slide repeatedly, as if the very point of the play could possibly slip by us.
What makes "The Glass Menagerie" so wrenching is that characters who have no intention of hurting one another end up doing so anyway. Their concern somehow backfires. Their caresses leave scratch marks.
In that respect, the play's most poignant scene takes place in the second act, and it is perfectly rendered here. Amanda, fearful that her pathologically shy daughter, Laura (Calista Flockhart), will become an old maid, has badgered Tom into bringing home a prospective beau from the warehouse. The dinner has gone awkwardly. The electric company has even switched off the lights before the meal is over. But finally, Laura and her gentleman caller (Kevin Kilner) are seated on the living-room floor, side by side, alone in the flickering candlelight.
Ms. Flockhart has a face as round and radiant as a summer moon, eyes that glisten with expectation and tears, and the overexcited manner of a child allowed to stay up beyond her bedtime. Mr. Kilner, the real discovery of this production, is tall and strapping, and looks like the glossy male models in 1940's magazines. It's almost as if Laura's high school memories have magnified him, made him handsomer than he ever was.
Touched by her timidity, he draws her out of her shell, just as her worshipful manner reawakens the golden boy he was back in senior class. Before long, the two are embarked on a collision course. It's nothing, really, just a romantic encounter that was never meant to be. Yet so resonant is Williams's writing and so beautifully meshed are the performances, that the world itself might as well be collapsing.
Ms. Harris has always had a rasp in her voice, breathiness wrapped in barbed wire, and a habit of underscoring the unexpected word in a line of dialogue. She is the most eccentric of leading ladies, if the theater can be said to have leading ladies these days. A certain madness suits her. (Some of her most memorable roles, after all, have been Emily Dickinson, Sally Bowles and Mary Todd Lincoln.)
Without forgoing Amanda's gentility, she emphasizes the woman's feverishness, her tendency to spin silvery dreams out of straws of hope and, similarly, to inflate momentary disappointments into catastrophes for the ages. "My devotion has made me a witch, and so I make myself hateful to my children," she sobs at one point with breast-beating fervor. Is Ms. Harris slyly reminding us that Williams, the supreme dramatist, had, in fact, a supremely self-dramatizing mother?
The performance that doesn't entirely work -- even in this household where exacerbated emotions are the rule -- is Mr. Ivanek's. He's a volcanic, lurching Tom, acutely aware of the coffin walls closing in on him. Sometimes when anger seizes him, he has as much difficulty wriggling free of his jacket as he does spitting out his words. That's half of it, of course, but only half. You get little sense of the incipient artist, the dreamer who scribbles verse on the lids of shoe boxes. Since he is also the play's narrator, looking back in sorrow, a vital poetic element is missing.
I suspect that's where the projections come in. Loy Arcenas's set, scrim and scaffolding, is purposefully on the drab side, and Mimi Jordan Sherin's lighting does it no favors. Far upstage, though, on a blank, gray wall, you'll see a tumble of storm-tossed clouds lighted by a flash of sun, or an open book, its empty pages waiting for someone to inscribe truths on them, or a pair of dark, seductive eyes staring intensely at the audience, as Amanda's peripatetic husband once stared at her.
The images are lovely expressions of themes in "The Glass Menagerie," but they're redundant. The poetry is already in the text. The Roundabout cast just hasn't coaxed all of it to the surface.
Like all of our greatest playwrights, Tennessee Williams tests everyone -- producer, director, designer, actor, critic, theatergoer -- who ventures within his orbit; how we respond reveals as much about ourselves as about the artist.
Frank Galati's revival of "The Glass Menagerie"-- the heartbreaking "memory play" that marked Williams' Broadway debut just about 50 years ago -- takes the playwright more literally at his word than most productions, including the one that launched the play.
And yet, by virtue of a galvanizing overview and a pair of extraordinarily risky, intensely felt performances, the production resonates far beyond this literalism: It leaves an audience member with something like the shivering senses of astonishment and pity that those first visitors to the near-squalid Wingfield flat, next to the Paradise Ballroom in St. Louis, must have experienced.
Julie Harris has too much Northern crustiness bred in her bones to be an ideal Amanda, but she's such a complete spell-caster that this almost revisionist portrayal has its own rewards.
Watch her stick her chin out petulantly as she pouts about marrying her children's father on the rebound: Her Amanda is less the Southern belle who once entertained 17 gentleman callers on a single sultry afternoon a lifetime ago in a Dixie that no longer exists, than the stern, meddling and desperate single mother of two grown children whose prospects are marginal at best.
At 24, her elder child, Laura (Calista Flockhart, in the leading role she has been working toward during several remarkable seasons Off Broadway), lame and hopelessly introverted, spends her time listening to old phonograph records and tending her collection of glass animals.
Two years younger and stuck in a menial warehouse job, brother Tom (Zeljko Ivanek) threatens to follow in the footsteps of his long-absent father, though not before succumbing to Amanda's nagging demand that he bring home a gentleman caller (Kevin Kilner) to woo Laura.
The play's narrator and authorial stand-in, Tom is a would-be poet who finally does escape this hothouse world, only to be forever haunted by his sister's image in the wake of that date gone tragically wrong.
This Tom's relationship with this Laura has a feline sensuousness that's wrenching -- and quite perfect. From the moment he introduces the play with a molasses-thick drawl that eventually moderates to something more provocatively insinuating, Ivanek plays Tom as though he'd been choreographed for a ballet of the play.
This is a man who can tie a bow tie perfectly without a mirror, whose body language suggests sexual ambivalence and hunger without broadcasting it, and whose plangent voice gets right inside you.
Flockhart is so young looking that the physical gulf between her and Harris is a hurdle, and she's so otherworldly that by the end you almost expect her to raise a finger and croak, "Phone home."
Yet her scene with Kilner -- a bit slick looking for the gentleman caller -- is beautifully played, every beat right. Kilner's voice, by the way, is uncannily reminiscent of William Hurt's.
The simple set by Loy Arcenas (everywhere these days), pays homage to the Jo Mielziner original; Mimi Sherin's lighting mixes moonbeams and candlelight to moody effect.
Harris' longtime costumer, Noel Taylor, has performed the miracle of creating a second-act antediluvian gown for Amanda -- sherbet-green chiffon elegantly gathered -- that doesn't humiliate the character.
Galati, who won Tonys for his Steppenwolf Theater adaptation and staging of "The Grapes of Wrath," uses projections to highlight stage directions and bits of dialogue, something Williams specified in the script but which is generally ignored.
While most of it is redundant, if unobtrusive, the device does provide a much stronger social and political context for the play than one usually gets, without mucking up the poetry. It's a beautiful production.