NEW YORK — The revival of "The Glass Menagerie" that has Broadway abuzz boasts two-time Tony winner Cherry Jones in the role of the Southern gothic matriarch Amanda Wingfield, among the greatest parts in the repertoire for a mature actress. But this isn't the only stellar attraction.
Zachary Quinto, the 21st century face of Spock and an actor of compelling interiority, plays Tom, the narrator and burgeoning writer burning to break free of his suffocating family responsibility. Equally noteworthy, John Tiffany, who won a Tony for his staging of the musical "Once," is collaborating again with choreographer-movement director Steven Hoggett in a dramatic application of their signature lyricism that's hauntingly accented with Nico Muhly's music.
But the real star of the production is possibly the oldest name in the playbill, Tennessee Williams, whose indelible memory play is heard in all its breath-catching delicacy. No revival of a masterwork can be considered definitive. And if inflated claims have been made for this one it's partly because of the poor way Williams' work has fared on Broadway in recent decades.
I'd rather not recall the misuse of Jessica Lange in David Leveaux's 2005 airy-fairy treatment of "The Glass Menagerie." But can it really be that the last truly great Broadway production of a Williams play I've seen was Peter Hall's 1989 staging of "Orpheus Descending" starring Vanessa Redgrave at her most transcendentally moving? A quarter of a century is a ludicrously long time to wait for Williams at full strength.
An early play with a mature vision, "The Glass Menagerie" propelled Williams from relative obscurity to national renown. Laurette Taylor, the star of the original 1945 Broadway production making a final comeback after years of alcoholic misery, gave what has been described as one of the greatest performances in the history of Broadway. Her portrayal of Amanda sealed her legend and helped launch Williams'.
The play has since been a vehicle for serious actresses of a certain age. Maureen Stapleton, Jessica Tandy and Julie Harris are a few of the storied talents who have essayed the role on Broadway. The last great Amanda I saw was Judith Ivey when she reprised her fine performance in Gordon Edelstein's production at the Mark Taper Forum in 2010.
Cherry Jones has received some glorious reviews, but her performance has also drawn quite a few detractors. Friends and colleagues have used words such as "calculated," "hammy" and "baroque" to describe an Amanda touted by the New York Times as "one for the ages."
My own take on the matter: Jones offers a technically accomplished performance that makes up in fervor what it lacks in subtlety and variation. In her determination to highlight the survivalist strength and determination of this single parent, she inadequately modulates her vibrant force, maintaining a monotonous intensity that brought to mind the Stanislavskian distinction between living a role and performing one.
Arms flamboyantly aflutter, Southern accent cresting its way to the back mezzanine, her Amanda is a theatrical conjuration, a virtuosic display of histrionic artifice. This is the opposite of Taylor's approach, which critic Stark Young described as "naturalistic acting of the most profound, spontaneous, unbroken continuity and moving life."
But my ambivalence toward Jones' supercharged characterization didn't diminish my gratitude for this "Glass Menagerie." Much of this has to do with the way Tom assumes a greater prominence than usual. Tiffany's production foregrounds the narrator, giving his monologues time and visual enhancement that never let us forget that this act of remembrance is also a triumph of writing.
Much like the scenic effects of a match that refuses to extinguish and a fire-escape that climbs directly into the darkened future, memory is being transmuted before our eyes into dramatic prose that bends ineluctably toward poetry.
A good deal of the lyrical credit goes to Quinto. His accent and appearance might not jibe with the Tom of our imagination, but he embodies the concentrated distractedness of a young artist plotting his necessary escape from the workaday world. Better still, he's too internally present to be dwarfed by Amanda's grandiosity. This young man may be cursed with an ambivalent heart, but there's nothing recessive about the characterization.
As mother and son, Jones and Quinto are well-matched antagonists, carrying on the skirmishes of Amanda and her deserting husband, "the telephone man who fell in love with long distances," as Tom says of his father in his opening monologue.
Williams once observed that the first act of his play belongs to Amanda and that the second belongs to Laura, the crippled daughter whose uncertain future is the cause of so much household anxiety. Celia Keenan-Bolger looks as fragile as her glass unicorn, the sole figurine on display here, and her scene with the gentleman caller (sharply played by Brian J. Smith) brings out all the requisite pathos in their futile flirtation.
But this "Glass Menagerie" is most memorable for the way it clarifies the titanic struggle between Amanda and Tom, who has the unlucky choice of either abnegating his responsibility and mirroring his father or being dominated by his mother and losing the freedom he needs to become the artist his wounds impel him to be.
Jones' fierceness, for all its limitations, boldly irradiates the emphasis of Tiffany's production, which has garnered as much attention for its visual novelty as for its interpretive daring.
On a set by Bob Crowley that's at once realistic and dreamlike, the director unleashes an array of elegantly simple theatrical tricks. When Laura first appears, she is pulled out of the living room couch like a rabbit from a hat. The movement of the actors is subtly stylized, and quotidian detail, such as dining at the table, is mimed.
But the best legerdemain belongs to Tom.
The narrator boasts that unlike the stage magician who gives illusion in the appearance of truth, he will give us truth in the appearance of illusion. This promise is kept by Quinto, who viscerally maps the central conflict facing Tom, who is of course the surrogate for Thomas ("Tennessee") Williams.
This deeply felt homage to an author who awakened the country's appetite for serious drama in the middle of the 20th century sparks the hope that he will start receiving the Broadway productions he deserves. His voice, nowhere more poignant than in this most autobiographical play, is still balm for weary, open-hearted souls.