Theater review: ‘The Glass Menagerie’ at the Mark Taper Forum
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Amanda Wingfield is one of the greatest roles in American drama, but this scene-stealer from “The Glass Menagerie” isn’t as easy to get right as some might assume. All credit then to Judith Ivey, who magnificently incarnates this mother making a last-ditch effort to get her grown children onto a path of respectability and security after a long and embarrassing detour of family hardship. It’s a performance that I’ll set down with Vanessa Redgrave’s in “Orpheus Descending” as high-water marks in my Tennessee Williams theatergoing.
“The Glass Menagerie,” which opened Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum in a production directed by Gordon Edelstein, shouldn’t be missed by any devoted admirers of Williams’ writing. It captures better than any play I know the claustrophobic reality of family life, with its jostling interests, imposing expectations, burdensome concern and overwhelming love. Notice the way Ivey’s ears prick up when she hears a cough. Could Tom (Patch Darragh) or Laura (Keira Keeley) be coming down with something? Hands marshaling scarves and milk, this Amanda is a maternal general maintaining a heavy surveillance on potential enemies from her cramped St. Louis tenement.
Nothing has been the same, as the family joke goes, since Tom and Laura’s father, a telephone company worker, fell in love with long distances. Abandoned, Amanda and her two children have been in survival mode ever since. The Depression has further constricted possibilities, and the future seems almost too forbidding to contemplate, with the world careening toward all-out war and the trio’s personal prospects not much brighter.
Employing her gift for gab while swallowing her dignity, Amanda sells magazine subscriptions by phone to acquaintances who hang up on her. Laura, crippled from a childhood illness, has retreated into a realm of her own, taking solace in a collection of glass animal figurines. And Tom, a budding writer who serves as the play’s narrator, slogs by day in a shoe warehouse and escapes to the movies at night, returning drunk to the apartment that has become his prison.
The naturalness of Ivey’s characterization is almost Darwinian. Accent in place, the gray hair and frayed outfit just right, she paces around the stage as though in her private living room, spying, intruding, pressuring and consoling. Her words tumble from her like improvisational thoughts. When trying to build up her daughter’s self-esteem, she urges Laura to cultivate other things to make up for her slight physical disadvantage, such as “charm — vivacity — and charm!” That second “charm,” yanked determinedly when words fail her, registers as a mother’s willful determination to rewrite her child’s story in the only way she knows how.
Misguided and oppressive, Ivey’s Amanda can also be playful and even a bit silly. Recalling the army of suitors that courted her in her Southern heyday, she squeals at the storybook memory of those myriad men who showered her with her beloved jonquils. And when Tom announces that he has invited a co-worker for dinner, Amanda, who has been pestering him relentlessly to help her find a gentleman caller for Laura, can barely contain her excitement. Her tendency to jut her tongue at jests and kick up her heels in the throes of enthusiasm goes into overdrive.
Edelstein’s production, which began last year at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven and had a successful off-Broadway run in the spring for the Roundabout Theatre Company, unfolds on an appropriately grim apartment set designed by Michael Yeargan. A scrim in the background lights up on the faces of characters who emerge as if in a dream, and a picture of the absent Mr. Wingfield hangs as an eternal reminder of the handsome charmer responsible for all this mess.
The staging takes Tom at his word that “The Glass Menagerie” is “a memory play,” and as such the transitions are as fluid as the use of the space. But there’s more realism than diaphanous flutter. Artistry isn’t allowed to candy-coat the starkness.
Some of the production’s more daring interpretive leaps involve Tom, who’s actually writing the characters that are appearing before us and occasionally even typing the dialogue that’s being spoken. Bolder still is the way Darragh suggestively plays this young scribe as a gay man who has yet to fully acknowledge his secret to himself. Williams’ biography lends credence to these choices, which are consistently eye-opening if at times awkwardly executed by Darragh, whose jumpy mannerism and wavering accent are offset by a brave originality and emotional truthfulness.
The production slowed for me in the second half, when the dashing Jim O’Connor (Ben McKenzie) arrives with Tom for dinner, setting Laura’s fragile heart aflutter and turning Amanda into a ludicrously affected old belle. The deliberate pacing here was nearly as sluggish as the play’s opening when Tom fidgets for inspiration before beginning to compose the drama we’re about to watch.
But perhaps it was just the heartbreaking futility of it all that made me a tad restless. McKenzie’s charming Jim would have made a great catch for Keeley’s endearingly defeated Laura, but the prospect of a happy ending was as dim as the living room after the lights went out, thanks to Tom’s failure to pay the electric bill. (Lighting designer Jennifer Tipton illuminated the scene with candles, another risky maneuver that made visibility difficult but was somberly atmospheric.)
“The Glass Menagerie” is not only about family but also about an artist’s difficult coming of age. Underneath all the humorous hostility of this household lies the exquisite tenderness of a compassionate writer. One moment, incidental probably to some, epitomized this quality for me. It occurs when Laura has run out of the apartment on an errand and is heard stumbling outside. The alarm and fluster of Amanda and Tom tell you all you need to know about the play’s stakes and the playwright’s heart.
But where Williams excelled most is in the creation of larger-than-life female characters, who refuse to bow to circumstances intent on toppling them. And Ivey, finding her own stamp on a character first immortalized by the legendary Laurette Taylor, inhabits every molecule of Amanda’s flamboyant being. After seeing a number of dull productions of “The Glass Menagerie” in the last decade, I’m pleased to report that Williams’ colorful genius has been gloriously redeemed.
— Charles McNulty
“The Glass Menagerie.” Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Call for exceptions. Ends Oct. 17. $20 to $65 (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes.
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