The last thing Broadway should need is another revival of The Glass Menagerie. Since the Tennessee Williams classic debuted in 1945, it’s been performed many times in many forms—most recently, just a few years ago with Cherry Jones and Zachary Quinto in the lead roles. But it’s safe to say that audiences have never seen a version quite like this before. With the assistance of a top-notch cast and crew, Tony-winning director Sam Gold (Fun Home) applies an innovative yet back-to-basics take on a 70-year-old standard, and the result is a stunning, emotionally rending production.
It doesn’t hurt that Gold has stacked the deck with acting talent. Oscar-winner Sally Field revisits her 2004 Kennedy Center role, sinking her teeth into that suffocating, doting archetype of motherhood, Amanda Wingfield. A woman let down by her own choices, Amanda’s life has been a disappointment, but she hopes to find redemption via her children: Laura (newcomer Madison Ferris), a painfully shy, physically disabled girl who can’t measure up to her mother’s memories of her own belle-of-the-ball youth, and Tom (The Normal Heart’s Joe Mantello), a creatively thwarted factory worker who cares for his family but dreams of escaping their claustrophobic embrace like his good-for-nothing father did.
Field’s is an anxiety-ridden, squirm-inducing performance — as her Amanda clings to unrealistic dreams for her children’s future, her desperate neediness is at once funny and sad, understandable yet painful to watch. As Tom, Mantello brings the play’s often-coded undertones to the forefront, delivering a virtuoso portrayal of a frustrated, closeted man crushed under the weight of his mother’s loving expectations. It’s no surprise that these veterans would be so successful, but the revelation here is Ferris. As a wheelchair user, she brings an element of realism and independence to a character normally played as helpless — for the first time, she seems strong and capable, though still terribly shy and non-confrontational. The audience seems to hold its collective breath as she maneuvers around the stage, and when her gentleman caller (a boisterous Finn Wittrock, American Horror Story) gets her hopes up only to break her heart, she poignantly runs through the full range of emotion. It’s a brilliant bit of casting, even if the age difference between the actors requires some mental gymnastics. (The demonstrably older Mantello is supposed to be two years younger than recent college grad Ferris, but that’s a technicality easily rationalized by Williams’s famous description of his work as a memory play. The script allows for such flexibility: Tom introduces himself as an unreliable narrator from the start, and as he looks back on his life, it’s easy to forget such trivialities.)
The minute Tom delivers his opening narration with the house lights up, it’s obvious that this is a much-needed fresh perspective on the show — and it only gets better from there. From the stripped-down set and clever effects to the ingenious lighting and the visual punchline of Amanda’s wardrobe (courtesy of Andrew Lieberman, Adam Silverman, and Wojciech Dziedzic, respectively), the design team — imported wholesale from the show’s previous run in Amsterdam — knocks it out of the park. Gold takes risks with his nontraditional staging choices, and though his vision might not be for everyone, there’s no arguing that it’s a bold, creative one. The rare revival that breathes new life into a classic rather than defaulting to convention, this Menagerie is well worth another look. A-