The relationship between a parent and their adult children is almost always fraught with heightened expectation, aggravated restlessness, and a healthy dose of illuminating confrontation, and is most combustible when an unexpected catalyst enters the fray, forever changing the familial dynamic. Of course, the memories of such events are often distorted by the emotions associated with them, skewing how they might have actually unfolded. Such themes are at the heart of The Glass Menagerie, written by Tennessee Williams, currently playing at the Booth Theater though February 23, 2014. I obtained my ticket via the TDF Ticket Raffle at the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Flea Market & Auction, intrigued by the play’s premise. I will admit that I’ve never been one to actively see classic plays, considering my introduction to live theater was through musicals, not to mention the fact that ticket prices have steadily increased over the years – I think it had something to do with the moments of quiet during scenes, and the lack of music that is omnipresent in musicals. Over the years though I have broadened my theatrical endeavors to include plays, though often times the plays I have seen have had some instrumental underscoring within (or, in the case of Peter and the Starcatcher, a few songs included within the show). It does seem (at least to me) the norm to have some kind of music within plays, whether incorporated within the framework of the play, or melodic underscoring. But then again, spoken dialogue has a kind of rhythm to it – bursts of anger or frustration are akin to a musical crescendo, a high (sustained) note belted out at the climax of a scene.
But I digress (again).
The framework of plot centers around the memories of Tom Wingfield, a young man living with and supporting his mother Amanda and older sister Laura, and who also serves (at the start of the play) as the narrator relating the actions within the play as drawn from his memories. As the primary breadwinner of the family (as his father abandoned them years ago), he chafes at the restrictions and responsibilities thrust upon him and yearns to find his own identity. His mother Amanda waxes lyrical of her Southern upbringing and her memories of her youth, while concurrently frets over the future of her children, especially for Laura, a painfully shy girl with health issues, whose sole interest is in glass figurines she keeps (her ‘glass menagerie’). Wishing her daughter have the comforts she had, Amanda prods Tom to find a ‘gentleman caller’ for her sister to ensure her future, as she sees Laura’s life become stagnant; a task Tom does fulfill when he brings Jim, a work colleague, home one evening. Relationships are created, tested and unraveled by the time the evening comes to a close, with the family ties broken beyond repair. The character archetypes of overbearing mother, restless son and introverted daughter are recognizable ones, and ones to which I can personally relate, and the events in the play were familiar to themes in my own life. Resistance and rebellion are also thematic with the family dynamic, with dire results.
The play was breathtaking to watch, the interactions between the three family members and their subsequent interactions with Jim bringing out different aspects of the Wingfield family. The set design echoed the framework of it being formed via memory, with the stage on which the characters interact and converse seeming to float among darkness (there are pools of water that surround the hexagonal set and a distinct dark divide between the actors on the stage and the audience. From the vantage point in the mezzanine, the reflections upon the dark water, whether it be the characters on stage or the frequent yet fleeting images of illuminated stars, coupled with the sparing use of set pieces, added to the tension on stage – there seemed to be a literal and physical boundary that sets apart those within the Wingfield family from those without. As mentioned earlier, there was a bit of musical underscoring at times during the play, which accentuated the scenes (as stated at the onset of the play by Tom as the Narrator: “In memory everything seems to happen to music.” The quartet of actors was astounding to watch: Zachary Quinto, in his Broadway debut, was mesmerizing as Tom, exuding the brooding restlessness of a young man saddled with responsibilities he didn’t ask for, balanced with the zeal to find a better life (or at least a life different from what his mother wants). Cherry Jones was amazing as Amanda, a mother who truly wants the best for her children, though has an imperious way of showing her love and concern, leading to a kind of obliviousness of how her words and actions have an adverse affect her children’s psyche. Celia Keenan-Bolger was fantastic as Laura, the introverted daughter who lived contentedly in her own world, displaying intense fragility to outside stimuli, yet wandering through an increasingly (in her mother’s eyes) stagnant life; the moment she takes a (tiny) step outside her own world in her (eventual) interaction with Jim (the ‘gentleman caller’, as her mother refers to him) was most revealing, as if she is slowly emerging from a cocoon to become (if only for a short period of time) a butterfly with wings to lift her from her isolation. Brian J. Smith is also fantastic as ‘the Gentleman Caller’ Jim, a genial guy who has his own set of expectations and disappointments to contend with, and unwittingly becomes the catalyst that forever changes the Wingfield family, though perhaps for the better, despite the chaos his presences ultimately brings.
The stage door experience was a good one – the crowd wasn’t as large as I had expected, as Zachary Quinto is probably most famous for being in the latest reboot of the Star Trek series (though a good percentage of people waiting at the stage door were women). In the end, only Brian J. Smith and Celia Keenan-Bolger emerged from the stage door, and happily signed playbills and posed for photos with those waiting at the stage door.
The Glass Menagerie is considered to be one of the great American plays, and for good reason – it’s rare that I attend a play that leaves such an impression that takes days to shake off – the character types such as Tom, Amanda and Laura Wingfield exist in every family, which insure the play’s eternal relevance.