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In the past eighteen months, two of America’s greatest playwrights have experienced glorious Broadway revivals — Mike Nichols’s version of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Pam MacKinnon’s Steppenwolf production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton battling it out for three hours — but Tennessee Williams has not fared nearly so well. Until now. On the heels of disappointing adaptations of A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, John Tiffany’s The Glass Menagerie, which originated at Harvard’s American Repertory Theater earlier this year, is a spectacular celebration of one of Williams’s best plays, a haunting examination of a fragile family and the concept of memory. In depression-era St. Louis, Tom Wingfield (Zachary Quinto, of American Horror Story and the Star Trek reboot) and his sister, Laura (two-time Tony nominee Celia Keenan-Bolger), live in a small apartment with their caring yet domineering mother, Amanda (two-time Tony winner Cherry Jones). Tom works in a local warehouse but dreams of becoming a writer and traveling the world. Laura has a lame foot that has turned her into a shy, mousey girl who collects glass animal figurines and treats them like friends. Amanda, who has never quite gotten over the departure of her husband, is desperate for Laura to entertain “gentleman callers” and get married. So when Tom brings home a coworker, Jim (Stargate Universe’s Brian J. Smith), Amanda jumps all over the sudden opportunity to make sure things are just right for this potential suitor.
The story unfolds on Bob Crowley’s relatively spare set, which includes a refrigerator and a small kitchen table on the left, a couch in the middle, and a Victrola and a fire escape on the right, the latter seemingly rising to the heavens. Front and center is a small table on which Laura keeps a single figurine that stands in for her larger collection, which is occasionally represented by glittering specs on a reflecting pool of water that surrounds the stage. Every so often the neon shape of a shark’s fin rises ominously above the surface, psychologically threatening the proceedings. Natasha Katz’s lighting demarcates the past (memory) from the present (reality), and Nico Muhly’s music adds texture between scenes. While Quinto, in his Broadway debut, and Smith are both exceptional, Jones and Keenan-Bolger virtually redefine these long-familiar characters, Jones delivering a performance for the ages as Amanda, words rolling off her tongue as if they were written just for her, Keenan-Bolger embodying Laura’s fears in subtle ways that offer a kind of catharsis for the audience. It’s heartbreaking when she kneels down in front of her figurine and its glow spreads across her face as if illuminating her soul. In his opening monologue, Tom explains that the “play is memory,” and that relates to both the story and Williams himself, as Laura is based on Williams’s sister, Rose (at one point, Laura remembers a high school boy calling her “Blue Roses” after mishearing her say that she has “pleurosis”), and Williams’s given name is Thomas. Tiffany’s version of this deeply personal play is indeed unforgettable, a sparkling example of the power of live theater and a mesmerizing examination of the conflicting emotions that complicate memory.