Sam Gold is the latest to pick up the next-to-nothing-is-more approach to Tennessee Williams. The American director’s “Glass Menagerie” opened Thursday at the Belasco Theatre, and it is pure Gold in every sense of the word. Has there ever been a barer stage on Broadway?
The four actors enter from a side door on the orchestra level, with Sally Field pushing newcomer Madison Ferris in a wheelchair. What follows is one of the evening’s many silent longueurs as Ferris, a woman with muscular dystrophy, negotiates the small staircase to the stage to take her place there. Occasionally, she walks by pushing her buttocks in the air and taking steps on her feet and hands. But for most of the production, this Laura sits on the floor or in the wheelchair.
It’s odd to begin a review by concentrating on an actor’s physical challenges, but that first long ascent to the stage pretty much establishes Field’s tortured Amanda Wingfield and, in essence, Gold’s take on “The Glass Menagerie.” It’s a daring, masterful stroke, and one that redefines the Williams classic, and will influence every “Menagerie” to come in the next few years.
Amanda is beyond delusional about her daughter, Laura. As Field plays her, this mother is also caring, full of love for her two children and most of the time she also makes a lot of sense about the family’s precarious financial situation. Joe Mantello’s Tom, on the other hand, is the high-strung, obnoxious one. Mantello is 54 and looks middle-aged, making him 30 years older than Finn Wittrock‘s Jim O’Connor, the Gentleman Caller who is supposed to be the answer to every prayer Amanda has for her daughter. Offputting at first, the casting of a much older Tom proves to be as surprisingly inspired as casting Ferris as Laura.
In the beginning, the rowdy exchanges between Field and Mantello seem off-balance. Her Amanda isn’t that much of a monster, and he seems to be overreacting. But in essence, Mantello is playing Tom the narrator throughout the play, not just at the beginning and the end. His Tom is reacting to the entire experience of having Amanda as a mother, and in the following scenes Field delivers on that claustrophobic nightmare that was Tom’s squandered youth.
Gold places his “Menagerie” actors on the lip of the stage, leaving a lot of empty space way upstage and far into the wings. Minimalism hasn’t been this jam-packed with significance since Ivo van Hove staged “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1999. That Off Broadway production featured nothing on stage but the actors and a bathtub. Since then, van Hove has gotten much flashier with the stagecraft, as evidenced in his direction of David Bowie’s “Lazarus” and the recent Broadway revivals of “A View From the Bridge” and “The Crucible.”
But Gold’s “Menagerie” stage only begins to feel completely occupied when Finn Wittrock’s bumptious Gentleman Caller arrives and Field, in her
Late in the play, Field lays into Mantello for bringing the soon-to-be-wed Gentleman Caller into their home, and Gold fully uses that upstage space he’s been saving. The moment is so painful that he distances the audience from the actors, turning us into voyeurs who are witnessing something we should not. Finally, we see the Amanda that Tom at the beginning of the play has been telling us about. On TV, Field memorably starred as the title character in “Sybil.” Here, she delivers the three faces of Amanda Wingfield to even more devastating effect.
Williams often gives his heroines the illusion that a man’s love will save them. But try to imagine Blanche in “Streetcar” even one month into her marriage with the stolid, dull Mitch. Most directors of “Menagerie” envision the Gentleman Caller as a promise of salvation that is cruelly withdrawn with Jim’s disclosure of an impending wedding.
Gold and Wittrock dash that hope much earlier — actually, right from the character’s first entrance in this production’s opening narrated moments. Ferris’ Laura blossoms in her candlelit scene with Jim. And then he kisses Laura. What this Gentleman Caller does to her glass unicorn is minor surgery compared to his treatment of her.