The front of the program of Ruth Stage’s intimate, streamlined production of The Glass Menagerie, which opened last week for a woefully limited engagement at the Wild Project, is a film-noir-like image of the cast, with Wingfield matriarch Amanda (Ginger Grace), son Tom (Matt de Rogatis), and daughter Laura (Alexandra Rose) dressed in black, staring out at the viewer; Amanda stands far left, stern and tall over the others; kneeling in front of her is Tom, who looks like a cat burglar with a black knit hat pulled tight on his head. He holds a cigarette, at the very center of the photo, that points at Laura, far right, in a sexy shoulder-baring dress with a few sequins, looking as vulnerable as the small, fragile glass animal she is balancing in her hand. In between the siblings sits the gentleman caller (Spencer Scott), in a gray suit and white shirt, peering at Laura. It’s a compelling portrait, and one that gets to the heart of this dark adaptation even though it is fantasy; not only is the scene not in the play, but the three Wingfields never wear those costumes, and the smoking is done with imaginary cigarettes. It’s like a misconstructed memory, a skewed reality. “I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion,” Tom says directly to the audience in the opening monologue. “The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.” In the hands of codirectors Austin Pendleton and Peter Bloch, it is also bold, powerful, and exquisitely rendered.
Williams’s semiautobiographical 1944 play is about a domineering mother, a physically disabled daughter, and a desperate son who can’t find his place. But Pendleton and Block, who previously collaborated on Ruth Stage’s epic Wars of the Roses also with de Rogatis, offer a very different take in this intimate version of a dysfunctional family. Jessie Bonaventure’s set is cramped and claustrophobic, with a round kitchen table, a sofa, part of a fire escape, and an alley off to one side. Hovering over it all is a large photo of Amanda’s husband and Tom and Laura’s father, a telephone man who ran off years before and has not been heard from since, although his presence is felt in everything they do. Steve Wolf’s lighting, Jesse Meckl’s sound design, Sean Hagerty’s score, and Arlene’s costumes maintain the eerie mood.
The tale is narrated by Tom, with de Rogatis, in a homey southern accent, making eye contact with all eighty-nine members of the audience, as if each of us is getting our own private telling. Instead of portraying Amanda as strict and manipulative, Grace plays her with a soft tenderness that is heartbreaking, reminiscent of Mary Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. And Rose, in her professional theater debut, is beguiling as Laura, who is not quite as fragile as usual; Rose uses no limp to depict her character’s physical impairment. This is Tom’s memory, after all, his remembrance of what happened once upon a time in 1939 St. Louis, and Pendleton and Bloch have replaced the homoerotic subtext that is often evident in the relationship between Tom and his work acquaintance, gentleman caller Jim O’Connor (sharply played by Scott), with incestuous undertones; when Tom lurks in the background, watching Jim and Laura, he appears jealous and unhappy, leaving when they kiss as if a spurned lover. He does not recall Laura as a physically damaged little girl but as a beautiful young woman who deserves more.
There have been two major Broadway revivals of The Glass Menagerie in the last six years, first by John Tiffany, starring Cherry Jones, Zachary Quinto, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and Brian J. Smith at the Booth in 2013, then by Sam Gold, with Sally Field, Joe Mantello, Madison Ferris, and Finn Wittrock at the Belasco in 2017. Pendleton and Bloch’s production might not have big names and a big budget, but its grim, haunting take is a must-see. Here’s hoping it gets extended past its October 20 closing date so more can partake of its ingenuity and inventiveness.