I was fortunate enough to snag a Student Rush ticket to the first preview (Thursday September 5, 2013) of the latest Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams.
The Glass Menagerie is one of those iconic American pieces of drama that most people are familiar with because they were forced to read the play in middle school or have caught a production of it somewhere along the way. It’s a simple play in that consists of four characters and takes place entirely within the walls (and balcony) of the Wingfield’s home, but it’s actually so much more in depth and complicated than that. Each of those four characters (Wingfield mother Amanda, Wingfield daughter Laura, Wingfield son Tom, and Gentleman Caller James) are entrusted with complex internal and external issues that are impossible to resolve within a two hour play. Their problems are our own, so we laugh alongside them. We laugh at them. But we also hurt inside just as much as (if not more so than) they do.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the plot of The Glass Menagerie (or just need a refresher), it’s about the patriarch-less Wingfield family (the father is out of the picture, having “fallen in love with long distance”). Amanda desperately hopes for a gentleman caller to call on her painfully shy (and crippled) daughter, Laura, so that Laura will be taken care of and not turn into a spinster. Laura’s brother, Tom, works at a soul-sucking job and is in charge of providing for his family even though he wishes he could be doing something more with his life. When Amanda asks Tom to find someone to call on Laura, Tom brings home a friend from work (James). Laura and James hit it off, but there is more to James’s story than he leads on. Though there are fleeting moments of happiness and joy, ultimately everyone’s dreams get dashed somehow.
Long story short – Unicorns without their horns are just horses. (See what I did there…)
Though it was wrong of me, I had ridiculously high expectations of this production based on the source material, the creative team (a lot of the same people behind Once) and the cast.
I was not disappointed. In fact, I was completely blown away by this production. If it weren’t for the guy next to me laughing at every little thing (regardless if it was funny or not), I would have felt like the only person in the theater. I was that absorbed into the story that I could have easily forgot there was anyone else in the room except for me and that cast.
All four members of the cast brought something to the table. Cherry Jones is a national treasure. Seriously – if you have not seen this woman on stage you are missing out. This is the second show I’ve seen her in (I also saw her in The Faith Healer in 2006… also at The Booth) and I am in complete awe at her talent. She commands the stage and is deserving of the attention. While Amanda could be seen as a selfish character, Jones gives even the most ridiculous monologues a sense of purpose. There are always layers to anything Amanda says and it’s fascinating to see this woman go on and on and on… as if she needs to keep talking to fill the air or someone else would have the opportunity to cut in (which Tom does sometimes…). Amanda tells stories to remember the good times, but her stories also remind her (and the audience) about the reality of her present and her fears for Laura’s future. Her mistakes won’t become Laura’s mistakes, but their futures would likely be the same. Self-preservation gives way to looking out for her daughter, but try as Amanda might, Laura’s future remains uncertain and it’s a painful truth for the entire family. If Cherry Jones does not earn a Tony nomination next year, I will eat my hat. This woman is a force on stage and it is always a privilege to see her do what she does best.
Celia Keenan-Bolger plays Laura with such care and grace. (I saw her once before in Peter and the Starcatcher, as her undertstudy was in when I saw The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee years and years ago.) Though the character could be perceived as naïve, Laura is very self-aware. (Self-aware to the point that her own self-esteem is as crippled as her foot.) She shies away from people, instead feeling more at home with her collection of glass figurines (hence the title of the play). Her favorite piece is a little glass unicorn (that is on display for the whole of the play… because symbolism). Laura stands up for herself when she needs to and let’s people in when she feels safe. Watching her gain confidence is inspiring, but coming off of that high is downright heartbreaking. CKB is an amazing actress and she brings such an authenticity to the characters she plays.
Brian J. Smith (The Gentleman Caller) was the only cast member I was unfamiliar with. As announced in Tom’s opening monologue, The Gentleman Caller only appears in the last part of the play, but plays an important part. That he does… that he does. Though we only see him on stage for a short amount of time, The Gentleman Caller is the missing piece to the other three characters’ puzzles… but he still doesn’t quite fit their needs. For Amanda, he’s a solution to her daughter’s impending spinsterhood. For Laura, he’s the first (and only) person she ever loved. For Tom, he’s a colleague and perhaps something more. (I’ll delve into that when I discuss Zachary Quinto as Tom in a couple paragraph…) However, The Gentleman Caller manages to get everyone’s hopes up and then spectacularly dashes them all. However, as an audience member, I didn’t hate him (even though I felt like I should). Perhaps it’s because Brian J. Smith was so charming and likeable on stage, or perhaps it’s because I’m a grown up now (as opposed to the 6th grader I was when I read the play for the first time… young children will never understand the complexities of a Tennessee Williams play… I sure as hell didn’t). I understand now that The Gentleman Caller was never supposed to be the thing that solved the Wingfield’s problems – he was supposed to highlight them and make the family (and each individual member of it) deal with the realities of the situations they were facing. Smith’s “aw-gee” presence on stage was needed to give the weighty issues we all were thinking about some levity. Even though he brought on just as much (or more) pain than he eased, The Gentleman Caller is a necessary character to round out the Wingfield trio.
And then there was Tom. This was Zachary Quinto’s broadway debut and I felt really lucky to be a witness to the start of what is sure to be a successful Broadway career (should he wish to continue to act on the Great White Way). I was mesmerized by his stage presence and his presence on the stage. What I mean by that is that he commanded the stage (he has a screaming match with Jones that will make your eyes go wide), but you could also see him in the moment. I was lucky enough to have a 7th row seat and because I remembered to wear my glasses, I could clearly see his facial expressions throughout the scenes. There was this one moment when he was watching Jones give one of her monologues and I swear to you that his eyes were sparkling – like he was thoroughly enjoying this spectacle of a story that Jones was weaving. In that moment, though, I couldn’t tell if it was Tom listening to Amanda or Quinto watching Jones. To me, it seemed like the latter – like Quinto was just beyond pleased to be watching Jones shine from just a few feet away. Or maybe Tom was just really interested in one of his mom’s stories… (which somehow I just don’t buy, given their relationship).
I found Tom to be the most tormented character in the play because he was caught between wanting things for himself and needing to provide for his family. He wants to write, but is stuck working in a job he doesn’t love to be able to support his mom and sister because his father is no longer in the picture. Each night he goes to the movies and doesn’t wander back home until a few hours before he has to get up for work. It’s a vicious cycle that he doesn’t break, but it’s wearing him down more and more. He snaps at his mother, is protective of his sister and wants more for his life than the hand he was dealt. When he does do something for himself, everyone else suffers. The lights literally go out. When Amanda confronts her son what he does each night, he constantly explains he goes to the movies. There’s a lot that’s not said here, but as the play wore on, I interpreted Tom’s late-night entertainment was going to the movies, but then perhaps seeking comfort elsewhere. He was no stranger to drinking, but I was under the assumption he was looking for a gentleman caller of his own… or at least someone (or someones) to help him relieve some tension.
Now, before I started typing this up, I actually Googled if Tom Wingfield is specifically written as a gay character. I found no concrete “yes” or “no” answer, but there were several opinions and pieces claiming that because Tennessee Williams was gay, and that in The Glass Menagerie Tom is a fictional stand-in for Williams, that Tom is gay. There’s even an article in the back of the Playbill about Zachary Quinto (“In Glass Houses” by Harry Haun) that quotes Quinto as saying “To play Tom – which is the clearest distillation of Tennessee Williams himself – at this time in my life is perfect.” (Quinto came out in October 2011.) Though Tom’s sexuality is not at the forefront of the play, it does affect the interpretation of this character. Remember, the play takes place in 1937…
Though the play is set almost 80 years ago, its themes still very much resonate today. Family responsibility, employment, financial security, individuality, disability and then some are all things we’ve either dealt with ourselves or tangentally through a loved one. That’s what makes this play so easy and so hard to watch – we can relate to these people probably more than we care to admit.
This is a fantastic show. Simple as that. The cast is great. The minimal set is perfect. (There’s some furniture, a fire escape, a glass unicorn and a typewriter… because you know, symbolism.) It was just icing on the cake for me that The Glass Menagerie is playing at The Booth (where I saw my very first Broadway show – The Pillowman – nine years ago).
Now in previews, The Glass Menagerie opens on September 26, 2013. (They do a student rush – $35. You are allowed 1 or 2 tickets and must show a student ID.) It’s playing at The Booth, which is located on 45th St between 8th Ave and Broadway.
Stagedoor – I did go to the stagedoor after the show. (This is my experience/what I saw and not a guarantee that it’ll be like this each night.) The cast had a lot of guests (as it was first preview), so they didn’t come out to sign until about an hour after the show. All four cast members came out and signed. (It was announced that they would only be signing Playbills and show posters, so the people who only had Star Trek stuff and headshots had to leave.)
Quinto was the first person out and he looked legitimately surprised and overwhelmed at the crowd at the stagedoor. (I thought this was cute, as there were not really that many people there compared to other stagedoor experiences I’ve had after other shows.) He signed for people and took pictures (make sure to have your cameras ready when it’s your turn). I didn’t get a picture, but as he was signing my Playbill, I congratulated him on his Broadway debut and he looked up and made eye contact with me before thanking me for coming to see the show. And it wasn’t even just a “Thanks for seeing the show.” It was a heartfelt and extremely grateful/gracious “Thank you so much for coming to the show.” It was almost as if he was surprised that so many strangers were that receptive and appreciative of his work. He deserved it, though. He was great as Tom (albeit a little quiet in spots… I’m glad I had a close seat, else I would have missed some of his dialogue) and definitely made an impact on me. His sincerity and general niceness to me and the crowd has earned ZQ a spot on my list of actors who I respect even more having met them in person. (Darren Criss and Zachery Levi hold the top spots, but ZQ is definitely in the Top 5.)
The crowd at the stagedoor thinned out considerable after Quinto and CKB signed, but I hung around for the other two. I really wanted to talk to Cherry Jones, but some guy started talking at her and their conversation carried over through when she was signing my Playbill, so I didn’t even get a proper chance to thank her. She’s amazing. Like, amazing. Brian J. Smith borrowed my Sharpie to sign my Playbill and commented that it (the marker) was green, like that was some huge surprise.