The Glass Menagerie
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
March 23, 2005
“Oh, be careful—if you breathe, it breaks!” Laura Wingfield cautions Jim O’Connor, as he holds her favorite glass figurine, the unicorn. This is presumably the most trusting the bashful young woman has ever been with someone other than her gently restless brother, Tom, and her mother, Amanda, a former Southern belle for whom vivacity is an Olympic sport.
Jim works at the Continental Shoe Factory with Tom and has come over for dinner, unwittingly stepping into the role of Laura’s lone Gentleman Caller in almost a decade of eligibility. Despite her “inferiority complex” (as he armchair-diagnoses it) and her slight claudication, he cajoles her into a whirlwind of joy, climaxing in a dance during which the glass unicorn loses its horn, and ending with a kiss, during which Laura nearly loses her self-consciousness. At this moment, Jim realizes the fragility of this creature; he breathes an excuse (he is, in fact, romantically involved with someone else, and he realizes he has been leading Laura on), and shortly thereafter he is gone.
This is the final episode in our narrator Tom Wingfield’s homage to his sister—a few months later, he tells us, he was fired from the shoe factory and abandoned the two women, as his father (the “telephone man who fell in love with long distances) had done years before. Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie is about the desire to both smother and smash those things that we hold most precious. This tragic memory play warns us that the more we keep ourselves out of harm’s way, the more vulnerable we become.
In Spain there is a civil war being waged, and the world without the United States is about to erupt in a second world war, but the memories Tom recounts take place in St. Louis, circa mid-1930s, where American dreams such as those of Amanda can still survive despite their being uprooted from a plantation on the Delta and stuffed into a cramped sunless apartment in industrial St. Louis. The Glass Menagerie has never struck me as a “political play,” but it seems all the more resonant now at a time when the current administration is doing everything in its power to preserve retrograde values, (willfully?) blind to the resultant atrocities that have occurred, and those that are on their way.
David Leveaux’s production suffers from a major casting mistake—Christian Slater as Tom— that causes all sorts of problems. Tom is a poet and it is with lush language that he conjures this portrait of his family. He is both an artist and a homosexual (or certainly of a sexual orientation that he is not comfortable sharing with his family, and Amanda is oddly not hounding him about marriage). He has escaped from that dismal apartment, job, life, but his sister and mother have not, and he feels very guilty for it. Yet Slater does not savor the language; he dumps it out of his mouth. This may be his way of playing guilt, but it comes off as a kind of shrugging resignation. His regard for his sister and mother feels more sexual than affectionate, and his need to get the hell out of Dodge seems to be more out of annoyance with his mother than the longing to explore a sexual life that he could not begin to describe to her. And without the sensitivity and linguistic relish of the writer or the fugitiveness of the closeted homosexual, it is hard to understand why he so desperately has to get out.
I did not want to blink when Jessica Lange was on stage—her Amanda reminisces about her days of courtship with a sensuality that borders on the erotic. Even listening to her voice from offstage as she phone-plagues friendly acquaintances to renew their expiring subscriptions to the "Companion" (“just when that wonderful new serial by Bessie Mae Hopper is getting off to such an exciting start!”) is a vivid experience. She seems to experience a two-second delay between her impulsive looks of disgust or air-grasps when someone pulls away and her realization that these expressions and gestures are unflattering and reveal too much. But with the sluggish Slater as her most frequent scene partner in the first half, this thrillingly theatrical creature seems to be in a play of her own.
However, Josh Lucas’s arrival as the Gentlemen Caller in the second half of the play is exactly the beacon of light they (and we) were hoping for. His can-do self-made-man-ner brings Laura out of her mother’s aggressively upbeat shadow. Positively radiant in his glow, Sarah Paulson’s Laura makes each monosyllabic answer sound like a poem, and her momentary foray into durability from delicacy is convincing and so moving. The brilliance of Lucas’s performance is the way he uses his sunny gestures, sparkling plaudits, and sprightly smile to distract her (and us) from the darkness of self-doubt that surrounds him. When he finally fathoms Laura’s longing to see herself as he sees her, to believe in the possibilities he purports, he sees a burdensome commitment coming his way and makes a hasty (and guilty) exit.
Lucas’s and Paulson’s time together is captivating and that alone is reason to see this gorgeous play. Even Slater does not ultimately harm the evening for, while Williams’s play is about all sorts of fragile things—glass animals, human hearts, American dreams— The Glass Menagerie is the farthest thing from breakable.