Since the founding of this website I have reviewed three previous productions of “The Glass Menagerie” (see Search), each assessed with mix results. The latest staging, directed by Sam Gold, has its own particular problems.
The first difficulty one notes is that the play by Tennessee Williams is being mounted on a huge, almost bare stage, with bright lighting and little more than a dining table visible. That concept immediately runs blatantly counter to the intimacy of a play. Joe Mantello as the son Tom Wingfield greets us awkwardly to introduce the memory play as something he will conjure. The situation seems forced.
One key scene as written by Williams brings Finn Wittrock as Jim, the Gentleman Caller, together with the shy, withdrawn Laura in an alternately sensitive and upsetting break-through conversation. What does director Gold do? He stages the scene with very dim candlelight (the lights have gone out in the Wingfield home). But a way needs to be found to brighten the faces. Even in Row D, I could not make out facial expressions so key to observing what develops between Jim and Laura.
The role of Laura’s mother, Amanda, is basic to the play, and there is a poetic sadness in the writing, as Amanda flutters about while reflecting on what might have been in her life. But Sally Fields as Amanda is mostly strident, often angry, and not only does this eliminate the beauty of Williams’s dialogue, but it leaves no room for the crushing build-up toward the end when she finds that Jim is engaged and rips into Tom for not knowing this and taking it into account before brining Jim home to dine with Amanda and Laura, with Amanda desperately hoping that Jim will be a suitor.
The most interesting aspect of this version is the casting of Madison Ferris as Laura, as she is suffering in real life from muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair. Watching her strategically maneuver in and out of the chair with determination is a revelation. It is a admirable to undertake such reality casting, and Ferris is effective in the role.
However, this gives the play a tilt beyond what Williams wrote. His Laura has a slightly game leg. Here there is an escalated problem in finding a husband for the more severely stricken Laura. On the other hand, that can make the play even more poignant, especially as Ferris projects independence in standing up to her mother and suggesting a hidden strength and lively personality beneath her shyness. Both Ferris and Whitrock are to be commended for making their characters very human, even though viewed in dim light that makes us depend mainly on listening to their dialogue.
But overall Gold has given us more of an in-your-face production in which one has to search for snatches of William’s poetry. His writing is what makes the play so sensitive. In this case the desire to stage it differently undercuts rather than enhances the drama which when well-done shimmers with sensitivity.
Still, for those who have never seen “The Glass Menagerie,” this is a chance to experience it, no matter how flawed the staging. At the Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed April 7, 2016.