As a teenager newly discovering theatre, I thought Tennessee Williams was, as the kids say, the bomb. I enjoyed the psychologically compelling dramas, the larger-than-life Southern characters, and baroque poetry of it all. The film adaptations of his work helped sell the package. When you have a Marlon Brando or a Paul Newman portraying your protagonists, you must be doing something right. But as I got older, I drifted away from Williams. The psychology started to feel forced, the characters more Southern fried, and the language a little too precious. Eugene O’Neill became more prominent in my pantheon. And I started to find British playwrights tackling grittier, more dangerous, more political material. Williams, it seemed to me, belonged in a museum.
And I felt that way for a long time. This summer has changed my thinking for the better. First, I saw Sweet Bird of Youth at the Old Vic in London. This production was fairly straightforward. But it wasn’t clunky. It felt vital and relevant and, well, not tired. Kim Catrall was a good Alexandra Del Lago. Her reading was a bit too modern perhaps, and, Geraldine Page is a hard act to follow. But Seth Numrich hit it out of the park as Chance Wayne. I had seen Numrich in New York earlier in the year in Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy. Numrich is fast earning a reputation as THE next Broadway dramatic leading man, and it is a well-deserved reputation. In both plays, he made the material alive, vital, dangerous while still remaining true to the intentions of the material.
The second part of this journey stands as the most important. I caught an early preview of The Glass Menagerie now on Broadway (it had started at A.R.T. in Boston). This production is one of those transformative ones you see in your life. I had a very similar experience when I saw Jason Robards perform as Hickey in the 1986 The Iceman Cometh. Director John Tiffany fully invested in what the idea of a memory play means. We feel these characters are disconnected from the world, a notion ably assisted by a fantastic design concept that has the Wingfield family floating both at sea and amongst the stars.
When I was younger and directed this play back at university, I always imagined Tom as the hero. Perhaps it is because I am now middle-aged, but Cherry Jones established Amanda as the hero of this piece. Past Amandas had always been a little too Blanche DuBois, a little too flighty and flakey and too in love with the grand charms of a now extinct South. Here, Jones puts on the Southern coquette as a mask; it is part of a long game she plays to get Amanda married. And for the first time I could hear, really hear, certain lines that had always been there. Amanda, at the end of the day, is a very practical individual. She either wants Laura to get a job OR to get married. The either/or is important here. It is only when the job path no longer becomes viable that she puts all of her attention on marriage. Nor does she flirt with Jim, the Gentleman Caller. There are many reasons to go see this production. If you only have to pick one, then Cherry Jones is it.
The rest of the cast do fine work as well. Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura and Brian J. Smith as Jim invest their scene — the play’s longest — with both whimsy and dread. The audience cannot help but feel fully in the moment. Keenan-Bolger and Zachary Quinto as Tom give a full back story to the sibling relationship that is often missing. Quinto too shines. Williams’s sexuality is well-documented, and Quinto has been quite candid in public about his own. Quinto and the production team seemed to own Tom Wingfield’s sexuality rather than try to play a game of three-card monty. This move added new layers of depth to his feeling of being trapped and give new dimension to when he disappears at night.
These two productions, the second in particular, gave me a new lease on Williams’s world. It has been a long time since I have wandered the plantations and New Orleans neighborhoods of his work. I am glad to be back.