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Escapism shines poignantly throughout ‘The Glass Menagerie’

Published: Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, February 20, 2013 00:02

glass

Courtesy Michael J. Lutch / American Repertory Theater

 It’s no secret that Tennessee Williams is one of the most talented playwrights of all time, and “The Glass Menagerie” (1944) is among his best works. But is among his best works. But to take a masterpiece and give it new life takes great innovation and talent ­— and that’s just what director John Tiffany did this past Wednesday in the American Repertory Theater’s showing at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge.

 “The Glass Menagerie” is the story of a mother, brother and sister struggling to make ends meet after being abandoned by their father, a telephone operator who “fell in love with long distance.” Son and narrator Tom (Zachary Quinto), takes after his father’s dreams of escape and resents the pressure of supporting his mother and sister. Mother Amanda (Cherry Jones) is obsessed with finding a “gentleman caller” for her daughter, Laura (Celia Keenan-Bolger), who suffers from a limp and has immense social anxiety. The majority of the play builds up to the final scene, where the Gentleman Caller, played by Brian J. Smith, comes over for dinner.

The fundamental theme of the piece is escapism. Amanda escapes through telling stories of the glory days of her youth before her husband swept her off her feet. Tom escapes through drinking and watching movies and Laura escapes through daydreams and obsessively maintaining her glass figurine collection. Amanda believes that her daughter will finally be happy once she finds a husband, and she works effortlessly to achieve this goal in ways that make the audience both laugh and cringe. Jones plays her overbearing, multifaceted character carefully by portraying her as a wickedly delusional yet hopelessly loving parent.

Surprisingly, the weakest performance was by the most recognizable member of the cast, Quinto as Tom. Identifiable by his roles on “Heroes” and “24,” Quinto seems more suited for television where his ability to show vocal and facial emotion is clear. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the same success on stage, and was ineffective in using his entire body to show emotion.

The stage, with its dream-like set, was the most intriguing aspect of the play. The stage was set as the family’s apartment, with the floor made up of three hexagonal wooden slabs to represent different rooms. An area to the far right of the stage was the fire escape and exit to the home where characters went out by descending into the floor. Upstage, the fire escape continued upward, made of segments growing smaller with height. Downstage center on a small table remained a glass unicorn, Laura’s favorite piece, lit by a narrow beam of light. The three rooms hung suspended above a pool of water, and throughout the production characters would look into the water at their reflections. The set successfully made an emotional use of height by alluding to the dark water’s depths and the rather heavenly destination of the fire escape.

There were consistent references to a missing father throughout the piece, implying that his loss was a driving cause for action. Physically, the characters would gesture to the place where his portrait hung, and emotionally, they looked for another man, the Gentleman Caller, to fill his void. Simple props like a couch, table and chairs echoed the loneliness of the family with a missing father and successfully made the characters appear stuck in their situation.

Keenan-Bolger demonstrated strong character development as Laura, with her shy and endearing portrayal of a girl in love with her glass collection and playing music records. One of the most powerful moments of the play occurs when Smith tries to help her gain confidence and kisses her. This action, despite its good intentions, shatters Laura’s innocence, an event echoed by the breaking of her favorite glass unicorn while the two are dancing.

The play’s ending leaves the audience with uncertainty about the future. This production’s strongest elements were the creative set, Jones’ ability to portray a distraught mother’s conflicting personality traits and Keenan-Bolger’s dynamic performance as Laura. As a whole, the play is moving and provides a unique demonstration of an already incredible script. 

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