Surely we have reached the point with Tennessee Williams’s great plays — if not, perhaps, his lesser ones — where it is desirable and even necessary to deploy them in new ways. They are, variously, 50 to 70 years old, and time, having chewed on them this long with satisfaction, isn’t about to spit them out. Certainly not The Glass Menagerie, which debuted in 1945 and whose seventh Broadway revival, a rigorously de-romanticized, contemporary rethinking by director Sam Gold, opens tonight. For all the period froufrou that has stuck to the heavily autobiographical “memory play” over the years, it is not the least bit fey, but rather a very muscular and now familiar machine that can tolerate a good deal of tinkering. Williams in essence endorsed that approach by writing, in his production notes, that The Glass Menagerie should not be treated as a “straight realistic” work with a genuine Frigidaire and authentic ice cubes. “Everyone should know nowadays the unimportance of the photographic in art,” he decreed.
There is nothing photographic about Gold’s production: It is nakedly, bracingly theatrical. The scenic designer Andrew Lieberman has left the vast stage of the Belasco nearly bare except for a metal dining set and a Victrola, with a large cart visible down right from which the actors retrieve props as needed. No fire escape or indication of other apartments suggest that we are in a crowded St. Louis tenement circa 1937; you really feel that the family of Amanda Wingfield is apart and alone and unprotected against the world. (When Tom — Williams’s stand-in — goes to bed, he does not even have the sofa of the stripped-down 2013 revival to lie down on; he makes do with the floor.) The lighting, too, by Adam Silverman, is bleak: flat and hard and chary with its poetry until sister Laura’s supposed gentleman caller arrives; then it cuts out completely (leaving just candlelight) because Tom has failed to pay the electric bill. He didn’t pay the clothing bill, either; Wojciech Dziedzic’s costumes, except for an absurd pink tulle gown that Amanda dons for the special evening, are contemporary items the cast might wear to rehearsal. (Have we not seen Joe Mantello, who plays Tom, in that very peacoat before?) But it’s not just minimalist mania at work. By paring everything extraneous from the mise en scène, Gold and his designers, all retained from a 2015 Toneelgroep Amsterdam production with different actors, are preparing the audience to embrace the exploratory nature of the production.
If it’s more of an inquest than a definitive statement, it’s an inquest at a very high level; Sally Field, who plays Amanda, does not appear in basement black-box theaters. So Gold is performing a tricky balancing act: narrowing the scope of the representation and maintaining his cutting-edge cred while selling the story to an audience of 1,000. One of the casualties of this approach is what Tom calls “the social background” of the play. We lose not just the particular St. Louisness of it (the accents are nearly nil) but also the world-on-edge tension that Tom describes at the start: Guernica exploding in Europe, and, in America, “the fiery braille alphabet of a dissolving economy.” Instead Gold focuses on a novel and largely convincing interpretation of the family’s warfare as a symptom of the powerful but constraining love they share, and on the way both things shape Tom’s character deep into the future from which he narrates. (In 1937, Tom is just a few years out of high school; Mantello is 54.) In this reading, Amanda, often played as a monstrous meddler and quasi-hysteric, is actually a spirited, practical mother stuck with impossible children. Security, not domination, is her concern, and whenever Field jabs her hand in accusation she soon touches her mouth as if to stanch the flow of anger. You expect Field to nail Amanda’s wiles, and she does, but it’s an even finer performance when her “charm — and vivacity — and charm!” are stripped away, and she has to do the hard work of adoring her unadorable offspring.
Gold certainly ups the ante on that task. For one thing, Tom, usually portrayed as a sensitive soul mercilessly beset by his mother’s coarse antics, is in Mantello’s daring take more of a feckless brat: prone to sarcasm and not so much poetically sad as grumpily guilty. More than I’ve ever noticed, he is complicit in the family tragedy. This approach is congruent with what we know of Williams (whose given name was Tom) and his sister, Rose (who was lobotomized at 34), but also with the altered family structure of Gold’s production, in which each of the characters seems to have been manually recalibrated until they were evenly matched. The most startling change is in Laura, played by 25-year-old Madison Ferris in her professional debut. Diagnosed with muscular dystrophy in her early teens, Ferris uses a wheelchair; for her first entrance, she must shimmy backward up a set of steps from the audience, using her arm strength to propel her and Amanda and Tom to assist. It is a huge effort to get her onstage, as perhaps it was for Williams.
Once she’s there, it becomes clear that Gold intends us to notice fully what the text calls Laura’s “hardly noticeable” little defect. (Traditionally, it’s played as a slight limp.) At times the other actors carry Ferris around or lay her out on the dining table for physical therapy. Nor, as Ferris plays her, is Laura the morbidly shy and self-negating girl Williams describes; she’s resigned and mordant and, in some ways, tougher than Tom. When Jim, the gentleman caller, arrives, it is not so much her timidity he must overcome with his Dale Carnegie enthusiasm as her practical sense of what’s possible for her. Thus when he does overcome it — so stupidly and innocently, in Finn Wittrock’s winning performance — it’s all the more devastating; Laura is the only Wingfield who sees the world, and her place in it, as it really is. This new perspective, along with many other unconventional choices, creates a tension that, on the good side, wonderfully opens the play up to view. Being forced out of its familiar ruts makes the play tell different stories. On the problematic side, Gold’s readjustments posit a kind of ghost play next to Williams’s: a play that’s just as interesting but somewhat distorted. In that play, Ferris’s achievement is a victory, whereas in the original Laura’s never can be.
The choice wasn’t idle; having directed the Amsterdam production with a Laura who was not disabled, Gold specifically sought an actress for Broadway who is. The production’s final gesture, too, deliberately contradicts Williams’s stage directions, changing much of the play’s impact without altering any dialogue. Purists, if there are any, may yelp. But this is not the only Glass Menagerie any of us is likely to see in our lifetime; it’s a Glass Menagerie, one that restores what must have been the shock of the original while also reframing our ideas about Williams as an imperfect person and a pitiless autobiographer. That’s bracing; like the onstage rain that pours tumultuously during the final scene, it smells fresh and raises shivers.
The Glass Menagerie is at the Belasco Theatre through July 2.