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Friday
Mar172017

Stage Door: Sally Field in The Glass Menagerie

by Dancin' Dan

This is not your parents' Glass Menagerie.

It's not uncommon for theatrical "reinventions" to take place nowadays. Ivo van Howe has made it into a cottage industry of sorts, creating an intimate, visceral A View From the Bridge and a raw, elemental The Crucible in recent years. Sam Gold is of the same cloth. He made his name with an audacious revival of Look Back in Anger at the Roudabout in 2012, won the Tony in 2015 for his sensitive in-the-round staging of the musical Fun Home, and most recently directed a searing Othello with David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig off Broadway at the New York Theater Workshop.

But all those pieces benefit from a stripped back, in-some-cases radical rethinking. Tennessee Williams's memory play is a much more delicate thing, announcing as narrator Tom Wingfield does right at the start that this is a subjective work of art, a piece of memory that may or may not represent what actually happened. Productions of it generally take after the play's quietest character, the "crippled" Laura - they are generally fragile, gossamer things, as light and airy as a thought or memory hanging in the air in front of us...

This Glass Menagerie is much different. It is heavy and world-weary, feet firmly planted on the ground. But is it a bold feat of reclaiming these characters from memory and turning them into flesh-and-blood human beings? Or is it effectively a different play entirely?

I wrestled with this question all the way through this production. I am certain, though, that the performances are absolutely tremendous. Joe Mantello makes for an angrier, more capricious Tom, but in so doing gets at the subtext of the character's gayness better than most. Madison Ferris makes a stunning Broadway debut as Laura, grounding her far more than most other actresses have done. Finn Wittrock is charming, All-American perfection as the Gentleman Caller. And in the showcase role of faded Southern belle (is there any other kind in the world of Williams?) Amanda, Sally Field returns to the stage in stunning form.

Field has already played Amanda, at the Kennedy Center in 2004, but here she is completely in tune with what her new director and castmates are doing, playing a much more alive, much more fiery Amanda than we usually get to see. Field is perfectly attuned to the setting, too - both to the theater and the stage, which is bare but for a table with chairs, and a Victrola with Laura's records and glass animals. A stage so empty needs to be filled, and Field is just the actress to do it, serving up personality plus whenever she's in a scene. Magically, though, it doesn't feel like a BIG performance. Field dials back enough in moments to make sure Amanda stays real, not just the sum of her stories and put-upon airs. This is a mother who cares deeply about her children, who wants them to have what she had, and regrets losing. It is a performance of stunning power in both the tiniest and grandest of gestures.

But the production hinges on the choice to cast Ferris, who has muscular dystrophy, as Laura. In the play, Laura has a slight limp, but what really cripples her is her fear that everyone notices and judges her for it. She has taken her small defect and magnified it so that she sees herself as defective and unfit for the world that other people live in, withdrawing into a world of her own. But in this production, she is really, visibly disabled, having to walk on all fours in order to get into and out of her wheelchair. That she manages to get to business school - or even just walk around all day to make her mother think she's going - is a small miracle. Ferris's Laura comes off as surprisingly grounded, someone who could get along just fine in the world... if only she were "normal".

This is not the Laura that Williams wrote, but rather a girl whose physical disability has caused her to lose almost all confidence in herself outside of the safe space she has created for herself. The scene between Laura and the Gentleman Caller, made all the more magical in Gold's vision for being lit solely by the flames of a candelabra, is even more heart-rending for how honestly he does not see her disability and convinces her to not see it, too.

So no, this is not quite the play that Tennessee Williams wrote back in the 1940s. But it is still quite rich with feeling, and in a few instances beautifully staged. Sam Gold and his cast have put a light to this piece of glass, causing it to shine with all sorts of colors we never quite knew it had. This may not be the Glass Menagerie you know, but that doesn't mean it's not worthwhile.

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Reader Comments (16)

Sally is one of my faves,glad she is slaying it on stage in her 70's cos she slayed me in 2012 with her terrific Mary Todd Lincoln,give it back Anne.

March 17, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordon

Does this production qualify for Tony recognition? Field should triple crown.

March 17, 2017 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

She'll be up against Blanchett. Both productions are divisive, to say the least.

March 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

@Paul

Field's overdue. But Blanchett is the second coming they won't be able to control themselves and default her a Tony.

March 17, 2017 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

I would love to see Sally Field slay this role onstage. The Glass Menagerie is one of my favorite plays.

Yeah, there's definitely been a lot of divisive reviews for the classics this year on Broadway. Blanchett's Chekhov and this production have received wildly varied responses, but both actresses have received raves. Will be interesting to see what the Tony Awards have to say.

March 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAaron

This is an astute but verrrrrry generous review. Not to fault the actors is commendable; each are talented and bring what they can to the production. But what is onstage is actually nothing but a crude desecration of a beautiful play. Blunt, braying and ugly -- as if Stanley from Streetcar had decided to direct it. From the moment the production begins, there is simply back-and-forth yelling where there should be so many layers and colors and attempts at real communication. And, indeed, the casting of Ferris, while interesting if you can ignore the text entirely, is utterly wrong for the play itself. It simply makes no sense and reeks of a stunt, which is no way to honor or include differently abled performers. I could go on, but suffice it to say that Tennessee is rolling in his grave. And I'm not even a purist about these things...

March 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJeremy

OT: I just got through 11 episodes of Iron Fist. It's...either the second weakest or weakest Marvel Netflix season overall. However, it is so by MUCH less than those early reviews would imply (Finn Jones should have just said: Have you seen the entire thing yet?), boasting a kind of killer back half that a production that made this decision in 2017 doesn't exactly deserve.

Of the 5 Marvel Netflix Seasons to date, I'd place them like so, right now:

1. Jessica Jones S1, A-
2. Luke Cage S1, B+
3. Daredevil S1, B+
4. Daredevil S2, B
5. Iron Fist S1, B (Strictly on the first six episodes? C/C+.)

March 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

/3rtful

How is Field overdue? I think this is only her second Broadway performance.

March 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterArkaan

Volvagia, with so many OT posts and strange tangents, your own blogspot or similar would be a good thing to look into.

March 18, 2017 | Unregistered Commentereno

The images make this beautiful play look cheap and ugly- it's a memory play- the images should have the gleam of nostalgia - the casting of Ferris might seem a brave choice and yes there are not a enough roles written for disable actors- but Laura in the text is more of an emotional cripple than an actual one. In order for the play to work we must believe that she might have a chance with the gentleman caller . Mantello as Tom seems too old- in the play he is suppose to be merchant marine - Mantello looks as if he was buying fish at Zabars. I love Fields and I'm sure she is great in the play too bad she did not have a production worthy of her talent.

March 18, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterjaragon

How is Field overdue? I think this is only her second Broadway performance.

She's done tons of NY live theater. Had no idea this is her second Broadway show? But having established herself as a multiple Oscar and Emmy winner just a Tony shy of the triple crown and she's what in her 70's? I think they should seriously consider her.

March 18, 2017 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

She is not a good actress!

March 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterK

I love Tennessee Williams.
In England, in the last couple decades, they've looked at Williams' plays like Chekov or Shakespeare, and examined the text to get new viewpoints on it.

In the US, for many years, Williams' plays had been partnered with Elia Kazan's take on them. I remember reading how a friend of Williams said to him, but that's not what the play is about at all. Don't you mind him changing the tone and the message of your play?

And Williams was fine with it. Kazan made them hits and made Williams financially independent, so he didn't have to do anymore of those awful menial jobs that paid so little and that he was so terrible at.

So I think Williams would be fine with a version that really yanked one of his plays out of the habitual way, and that kept him current and revived again.

Memory isn't only rose coloured nostalgia. It can also be that gut-churning thing that wakes you at 3am.

March 18, 2017 | Unregistered Commenteradri

Adri you make some good points- I'm sure Williams is very happy that he is back on Broadway

March 18, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterjaragon

Considering this is the 13th revival in 5 years, I totally support all the "reinventions" that you mention.

March 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Blanchett's play is an odditty and she's not the main character even though the play is sold on her name. I don't think her play - The Present - will be up for any Tonys. At all.

March 19, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermurtada

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