“The play is memory,” Tom Wingfield (Joe Mantello) explains at the very start of The Glass Menagerie. “Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.” What if someone took Tennessee Williams at his word and pushed it to extremes? Then you would have Sam Gold’s starkly compelling, bravely executed revival at the Belasco Theatre. By the standards of New York’s downtown avant-garde – long influenced by Euro regietheater and the deconstructive antics of the Wooster Group – Gold’s approach is familiar. It’s the 3M Plan: minimal, metatheatrical, modern dress. Still, it’s rare for a Broadway audience to face an iconic stage classic so radically and brutally “interrogated.” For that reason alone, it is imperative for everyone serious about drama to see it.
Indeed, forcing us to look seems to be part of Gold’s tactic. As Laura, Tom’s painfully shy and dreamy sister whom their overbearing Southern matron Amanda (Sally Field) is desperate to marry off, Gold has cast Madison Ferris, an actor with muscular dystrophy. Ferris gets around in a wheelchair or, impressively, crab-walks on all fours, spine and hips alarmingly cantilevered. Watching her locomote from floor to chair, one feels awed by Ferris’ nonchalant endurance but also vaguely guilty for staring. Gold complicates the characterization of Laura by having Ferris speak with a contemporary vocal fry that betrays little trace of self-pity or mooniness. This magnifies Laura’s physical challenge (in the text, she has a slight limp) and de-emphasizes her psychological fragility. Laura is perfectly fine, Gold seems to be saying; everyone else is damaged. Does this conception “work” with Williams’ play? Yes and no. In a way, it’s doomed to fail as any sort of definitive reading, but as a counter-interpretation, the friction it creates is fascinating. If the play is memory, as Tom says, perhaps this severely disabled creature is how he views his sister – a perception that is, after all, just a projection of his own self-image.
This isn’t the director’s first time with Menagerie. He staged the play in 2015 with Ivo van Hove’s Toneelgroep Amsterdam. That makes perfect sense. Gold has probably learned a few tricks from van Hove’s visceral, clarifying approach (seen recently in the one-two punch of his Broadway debut The View from the Bridge, followed by The Crucible). The design team is the same as in Europe. Andrew Lieberman creates a deceptively spare set, a gaping wound of blackness. Wojciech Dziedzic carefully controls the ratio of drab gray to blossoming color. Adam Silverman dims the house lights so slowly and imperceptibly, it feels like a trap. And Bray Poor crafts a ghostly soundscape that echoes down the memory chambers. The Menagerie that played Broadway in 2013–14 – John Tiffany’s solid and resonant revival starring Cherry Jones – had fine, intelligent design, but it was still firmly within the sepia-toned Expressionism the play has been wrapped in since 1944. This kind of hard-edged design blows the dust off and then trains a klieg light on the drifting motes.
As for the acting, it’s all over the map – perhaps intentionally, to suggest family members trapped in different worlds. Mantello is urbane, crisp and polished, our semi-reliable narrator. Field starts off as bland but builds to maternal rage and fury. In the heartbreakingly hopeful Gentleman Caller scene, Finn Wittrock’s manly brio carries an edge of aggression. For all this production’s cerebral choices and cold, distancing design, the emotional impact is utterly present and central: love, disgust, betrayal, shame and the longing for understanding. Yes, Menagerie is memory, and I’ll not soon forget this shockingly fresh frame and angle. The glass figures are polished, hard, to the breaking point. The light bouncing off them is nearly blinding.