Sam Gold’s production of The Glass Menagerie is an exciting reinterpretation that obliterates the traditional trappings of the play, reveals the women in it with fresh insight, and may outrage purists. Delicious.
In Tennessee Williams’s famous memory play, writer Tom Wingfield (Joe Mantello) narrates his haunting memories of the family he abandoned—his mother Amanda (Sally Field) and sister Laura (Madison Ferris). Menagerie is meant to conjure elements of truth while trading in dreamy poetry.
Gold’s take plays down the Southern gothic and 1950’s melodrama, and shifts the focus of the play. There are still stage illusions, a sense of artifice, and even performative Southern hospitality but minimal julepy-sweet accents and zero decorative chintz. With contemporary clothing and a barebones set, this minimalist production offers a present-day conversation about disability, disappointment, and strength. Williams’ tragedy remains but our allegiances land differently.
Gold centers the physical body and tactile intimacy in this production first staged with a Dutch cast in Amsterdam in 2015. In the Toneelgroep Amsterdam production, able-bodied actress Hélène Devos played Laura with a leg brace and at times was physically carried by her family members.
Taking that creative choice a step further on Broadway, Gold has cast an actress with a disability—Ferris, who uses a wheelchair. Ferris’s first physical act as Laura is to climb up the family fire escape (represented by a set of stairs downstage) to get into the apartment. This becomes a whole family operation. Laura, with assistance, leans forward to make her way out of her wheelchair, negotiating her weight on her hands and feet with her bottom in the air. She lifts herself onto each step with Amanda adjusting her legs at each step for balance. With this choice, Gold forces us all to wait for Laura. The play stops cold. House lights are up on the audience. We watch her body as she shifts with an unexpected rhythmic fluidity. In a culture where we avoid looking at disability, Gold keeps Laura’s body in our gaze.
Gold takes the time in the production to reveal the family as a cohesive unit and their collective focus on Laura. Despite all the arguments, they have a deep affection for each other. To take the edge off the nearly constant conflict, Gold stages some small battles between Tom and Amanda more comically (chasing Tom with some milk for his coffee). So we are not as needled by the overattentive Amanda as Tom is. When we shift to big confrontations, the timbre changes.
Sally Field’s performance also softens our image of Amanda. Amanda can feel delusional in so many ways in Williams’ play but Field resists this interpretation. She matches the restrained tone of Gold’s production perfectly; understated and focused. She keeps her anger and frustrations in proportion to the events and her character’s inner strength becomes sharper. Field makes clear Amanda’s desperation is in service to her one cause—her children.
The play benefits from an overall measured escalation. It’s not high-drama from scene one. Rather than have Amanda recite her monologue of her memories of Blue Mountain at the start, Tom and Laura join in with her and in overlapping dialogue with Amanda regale us with the details of her former beaux. Their teasing of her warms a scene that could otherwise play as Amanda hectoring. Also, Gold has Field keep the performative Southern belle aspects of Amanda under wraps until Jim, Laura’s gentleman caller (Finn Wittrock), appears. Amanda is then, and only then, caught up in her memories of the past and zestfully reliving her youth.
Mantello’s Tom is less bitter than others have played him. He leans on a contemporary sarcasm that does not always fit the production. But when he says to Amanda, “There’s so much in my heart I can’t describe to you,” Mantello is welling with emotion. You sense Tom is teetering on the edge of telling Amanda his dark truths and if she had stopped to listen it would have come tumbling out. Mantello brings depth to this moment that could otherwise have zoomed by.
Even where the character of Tom is not in scenes, Gold has Mantello insert himself in the action much like Gold did with Alison Bechdel in Fun Home (a “memory” musical). Here Tom hands Laura things and comforts her even when his character is not present—perhaps acting as a better brother to her in his memory than in life. Mantello shines in these quiet, reflective moments that silently pain him. As an older man, playing his younger self, it’s in the finale where that casting choice works best. But more about that later.
In recent productions, the Gentleman Caller has been my favorite aspect of the play. Seth Numrich played him vulnerable, self-effacing, and trying to convince himself of his own waning self-confidence, in John Tiffany’s production in Edinburgh. Brian J. Smith (in the same Tiffany production on Broadway and the West End) was friendly, genuine, and warm. Finn Wittrock’s Jim is a smiling, plastic doofus—and I say that with love for the choice. Where the other actors played him with kindness, Wittrock’s intentional insensitivity creates a powerful new result. His bumbling of the situation with Laura is not softened by his good nature or care. He breaks things and has no desire to fix them. His apologies to Laura are dripping with insincere smiles. By pitting this phenomenally obtuse Jim against Laura, we see she deserves more than this mook. But it is her reaction to this upheaval that changes how we view her as well.
Overall, Ferris is not the strongest actress. Understandable since she’s brand new to the professional stage. She does not maintain an active stage presence when the dialogue turns from her and she’s still on stage. But in the second half of the play, when she is the focus, she blooms. In her candlelit scene with Jim, she starts self-conscious but gradually grows in confidence. When Jim fumbles his way out of their kiss, Ferris’s Laura does not disintegrate. With a sigh, she captures the spirit of what Jim says to her about his own life: “I am disappointed but I am not discouraged.”
After the abrupt departure of Jim, Tom and Amanda slug it out in their most violent and shattering battle. They smash through the back wall of the theater and the magic of the memory play is broken.
Once they leave the stage, Laura is on her own. With a disturbing calm, she moves herself from the floor where she was sitting back to the dining table. Gold has her cross a great distance from downstage to upstage (her wheelchair has been placed far out of her reach). Laura does not struggle or falter. She is not bereft at Jim’s departure. This is no moment of inspiration porn. It conveys her independence and resolute personality. She sashays in her own way to sit erect and solid at the table. Amanda returns crushed and the roles reverse; Laura comforts her mother now.
This Laura is no glass animal in need of tending. Once Tom exits the stage, he is no longer in control of the storytelling, leaving us wondering whether it is Tom’s memory that molded Laura into a delicate, dependent girl she never really was.
Laura stares Tom down when he returns to the stage to give his final monologue. He cowers, shrinks, then lashes out at her. It’s powerfully discomfiting to watch a grown man act like a rebellious teen when faced with Laura’s steely gaze. He tries to end the story but she refuses to be compliant and undermines him. In this final confrontation, we are left to wonder about this defiant Laura, who perhaps has always been in front of us, but we have woefully underestimated.