NEW YORK – Tennessee Williams’s first successful play, from 1944, “The Glass Menagerie,” is getting a brilliant revival at the Booth Theatre on West 45th Street. It is the brainchild of the visionary Scottish director John Tiffany, who is best known for staging the Iraq-war play “Black Watch” and for transforming the independent film “Once” into a hit Broadway stage musical.
Here, Mr. Tiffany imagines “The Glass Menagerie” for a new generation of theatergoers. He doesn’t alter Mr. Williams’s poetic words or reinterpret the play’s basic structure. Instead, he brings a new honesty to the material and offers some unique insights and creative ideas.
“The Glass Menagerie” is one of the best Williams plays, in which the playwright writes about himself, his mother, his sister and a gentleman caller who came into their lives back in the Depression days in St. Louis.
“The Glass Menagerie” is not an easy play to cast, and Mr. Tiffany has assembled a gifted ensemble of four actors: the great actress Cherry Jones, a Tony winner for “The Heiress” and “Doubt,” who plays Amanda Wingfield; Zachary Quinto, who plays the playwright-narrator Tom (i.e., Mr. Williams); Celia Keenan-Bolger, who is fine as the desperately shy sister Laura; and Brian J. Smith, as the expansive, optimistic Gentleman Caller and potential suitor of Laura.
His designers also collaborate on his ideas: Bob Crowley, decor and costumes, floats the Wingfields’ small tenement apartment on water, as if the family were isolated from the world.
The painterly lighting is by Natasha Katz, with original incidental music by Nico Muhly. A new element Mr. Tiffany adds to the proceedings is “movement,” a sort of stylized choreography, by Steven Hoggett, which adds another dramatic dimension to the precariousness of the Wingfields’ shaky lives.
You can tell Ms. Jones knows and admires Amanda, but unlike other Amandas I have seen, she seems more formidable, less daffy and more controlled. She is a tall presence, with broad shoulders, waved hair of the period, and when she mentions the D. A. R., Daughters of the American Revolution, the conservative women’s organization, you see, even in these hard times, this former Southern belle still hasn’t lost a touch of her richer past life.
Thirteen years ago, her husband, a rogue with a charming smile and a fondness for liquor, abandoned her and the family, and has been heard from once, by a postcard from west Mexico that bore only two words: “Hello, Goodbye.” Amanda sums him up as “a telephone man who fell in love with long distance.”
She was left with a son who reads dubious writers like D. H. Lawrence, writes poems and hates his job at the local warehouse. He spends his nights at movies or out drinking. Laura is not only physically handicapped but has retreated to listening to records and playing with her glass menagerie animals.
All of the actors give textured performances, with Ms. Jones’s probably the most emotional, though her Southern accent seems to edge toward her Tennessee roots rather than Amanda’s usual deeper-Southern cadences.
Early on, we find out that Mr. Quinto’s Tom knows he has to get out of this smothering family cocoon and see the world, even though he knows that no matter where he goes, Laura and his mother will be with him forever.
The pivotal moment in Act Two is the scene between the Gentleman Caller and Laura. When she recognizes that he is actually the Jim O’Connor whom she worshiped secretly in high school, she faints. But later in the evening, as she is lying on the living room couch, Jim talks gently to Laura, overcomes her shyness, gets her to dance and even gives her a kiss. When he tells her that he is engaged to be married, for a moment Laura seems overwhelmed, but she has picked up from Jim enough courage to be able to take that news grandly.
“The Glass Menagerie” gave Mr. Williams a reputation. Just five years before, the first of his plays, “Battle of Angels,” had flopped and closed in Boston. He had to leave the theater and do a series of itinerant jobs, even writing movie scripts in Hollywood. “The Glass Menagerie” not only restored him to the theater; it set him up as an American playwright. Two years later, he wrote “A Streetcar Named Desire” and it became obvious what an extraordinary talent the theater had on its hands.
Critic Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.