“The play is memory,” announces our narrator toward the outset of The Glass Menagerie. A twinge of regret in the back of his throat, he continues. “Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.” Pretty clear instructions for a director, no?
But most productions of this Tennessee Williams classic (at least the ones I’ve seen) don’t take Tom’s statement—“it is not realistic”—at face value. While they may veer towards something more heightened in a few characterizations, and in the delivery of Williams’s poetic writing, they are generally grounded in the cold, hard truth of the kitchen sink.
Not so John Tiffany’s production, at the American Repertory Theater in Boston. If you’ve read any of the pre-show publicity, you know that Mr. Tiffany and his designers (Bob Crowley on sets, Natasha Katz on lighting) have opted for a more unconventional look. The stage is a pair of honeycombed platforms atop a sea of black water, and behind the deck is another equally eerie abyss of blackness. From first glace, it is clear: your average Menagerie this is not.
Movement director Steven Hoggett ups the anti-realism ante by supplying fantastical little interstitial dances that knit various scenes together. A stylized flourish here, a shocking entrance there—like the design, it’s more the stuff of contemporary movement theater or experimental work than classic American drama.
And that’s what’s so right about this production. Its melding of classic psychological realism (those well-known scenes) and the best of new theatrical techniques (the design, the movement, the direction) yields something that feels shockingly current. I was so taken by the modernity of everything, the self-awareness of so much of the narration, that I went and checked the original text, wondering if Tiffany had altered any of the language to make it feel more 2013. But this doesn’t appear to be the case. His direction merely gives the proceedings the feel of something new.
That freshness also pervades every performance. Cherry Jones, Zachary Quinto, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and Brian J. Smith all match Tiffany’s freshness with their own, and you never for a moment doubt that what they’re doing is happening right now.
Of course, it shouldn’t be surprising that this alloyed evening works so well. Williams directed it to be so from the start—remember that first quote? Maybe that’s what’s always exciting about Glass Menagerie, that from the first, Williams insists we braid old technique and new, past and present. With feet in two eras, the result is doubly strong, doubly potent.
(The production also makes incredibly effective use of underscoring. I wish it was a tool more commonly deployed—it seems such a useful tool in drawing audiences in.)
Photo (above) by Michael J. Lutch, below, by theater-words