Recent years have seen A Streetcar Named Desire and even the uneven Cat on a Hot Tin Roof leap over The Glass Menagerie in popularity and prestige. But the latter, Tennessee Williams’ first hit, still carries a strong emotional pull because of both its poetry and its familial conflicts. A calling card for actresses of a certain age who have reached a certain level of renown, the complex role of Amanda Wingfield, mother of wallflower Laura and tormented Tom, has been tackled by the likes of Helen Hayes, Katharine Hepburn, Shirley Booth, Julie Harris and most recently on Broadway, Jessica Lange.
But now Cherry Jones is the new heir to the throne, arguably Broadway’s most venerated non-musical actress. Playing opposite Zachary Quinto (Tom) and Celia Keenan-Bolger (Laura), along with Brian J. Smith as the Gentleman Caller, Jones creates an Amanda who lets desperation for security turn her into a foolish, sometimes irritating and ultimately sad creature. In the current staging of Menagerie at Broadway’s Booth Theater, Amanda is neither the faded flower (à la Streetcar’s Blanche DuBois) nor a sacred monster (à la Mama Rose of Gypsy). As essayed by Jones, this Amanda deeply loves her grown-yet-stunted children and is legitimately crushed every time they disappoint her or life disappoints them.
In fact, what marks director John Tiffany’s staging even more than its gently surreal nods to Menagerie is the way all the characters are driven by two primary emotions: Fear and love. Generally, it’s a combination of the two, as when Tom puts off joining the Merchant Marines until, for his mother’s sake, he can line up a potential husband for his mentally fragile sister. Abandoned by the father years ago, all three Wingfields feel trapped in their shabby apartment. The small space and lack of prospects create relentless tension. Amanda sallies forth each morning with a “rise and shine” that may grate on Tom, but it’s her refusal to yield to despair that makes her so compelling. It also makes her more sympathetic than buying into the cliché that Amanda is just a matriarchal mama browbeating her kids.
To be clear this is no one-woman show in Tiffany’s hands, who previously staged the Tony-winning Once. Thus Keenan-Bolger grabs and holds our empathy as a Laura who is kind and loving yet truly unable to function in the real world. Quinto’s Tom is not just a poet, but also a clearly closeted gay man so tortured by his factory life that he escapes to cigarettes, drink and long nights at the movies. And Smith’s Jim O’Connor isn’t the usual boy-next door type. He is a little louder, wilier and more down-home, yet still someone we root for.
A Streetcar Named Desire may have made a more indelible impression on the cultural landscape and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has more sex appeal, but The Glass Menagerie remains the Williams work that speaks most movingly to average people stuck in time, slogging along even as day by day, their dreams fade. The play gives us, says Tom, “truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”