Broadway’s at it again breathing new life into an American classic with a revival of Tennessee Williams very own The Glass Menagerie. Recently I had the great pleasure to sit down with some of the cast (Zachary Quinto, Cherry Jones) and the director (John Tiffany) of this timeless tale to discuss the appeal of Williams and how a production written so long ago sustains the test of time with audiences of every generation.
The Glass Menagerie opens Thursday, September 26th at the Booth Theater.
Do you see this production as a reimagining?
(Director John Tiffany)
I don’t think so. What I’ve tried to do I think is what Tennessee (Williams) begs you to do in the introduction to the play…I’ve tried to filter that as much as possible which really sticks with my taste as well. I look to a spare world where the accents are vibrant presence in the middle of it and I’ve never really be able to get my head around naturalism but then I don’t think this play is about naturalism. It’s a dream play. It’s a memory play. In the introduction Tennessee says memories and in the opening monologue he says this is not real. And so I think that coupled with my own taste it’s not as much of a reimagining as…I hope that it’s trying to achieve, aspiring to achieve Tennessee’s own ambitions.
Tom Says that in the monologue?
Tom says this is not real this is a memory play, this isn’t real.
Is Tom a proxy for Tennessee?
Tom is Tennessee. I think so. That (Tennessee) was his nickname. Tennessee was what he took as a writer. Much to Dorothy Parker’s amusement! She was going to call herself Palestine Parker at one point I think although she wasn’t from Palestine.
Tom doesn’t seem very sexual, do you think his gay?
I think he’s gay. Definitely. But it’s set in the 30’s in the depression there isn’t an emancipated sexuality there in terms of Tom. It’s all very claustrophobic and pressured but yet to me it feels to me the way Cherry (Jones) and Zack (Quinto) approached it when they get going she says to him I don’t believe you go to the movies every night I think you’re doing things you’re ashamed of…I’m like ok I think what’s…
He’s going to the movies just a different type of movie!
[Table erupts with laughter]
You know he was talking about the relationship with his mother which was of course was a relationship between a gay man and his mother which is a very particular kind relationship. I think that’s very beautifully captured in the play.
From reading so much about Tennessee and his mum it feels very honest.
Could you tell us a little about the set?
We have three platforms which are the three rooms but yes they’re surrounded by a kind of mote of black liquid. Bob (Crowley) the design and I are big fans of this British artist named Richard Wilson who floods art galleries with black oil and the reflection is an incredibly dark deep black reflection. So we were toying with the idea of…we wanted there to be no escape at all for the characters so all of the entrances are made from below the stage. Once you’re on stage you can’t get off.
Is theater one of your first loves?
(Zachary Quinto – Tom)
Yes it is. I started performing in the theater when I was 11 so to be making my Broadway debut is probably my biggest dream come true.
As of late you have such a rich, diverse repertoire of work from American Horror Story to Star Trek. What is it about Tennessee Williams that draws you in as an actor and keeps the audience coming back to the story?
Well I think there’s a universality of the human experience that Tennessee captures in a way that very few American playwrights have captured. First of all I think The Glass Menagerie is his masterpiece. It’s the play he spent the rest of his life and career trying to measure up to within his own self and relationship to his work. I think he had a relentless pursuit of creative integrity and in that pursuit I think he was also trying to escape aspects of himself in his own life that were all inescapable. There’s a universal human truth in that and for me that’s the thing that is captured in this play and in this production. We don’t tell people how to watch it, we don’t tell people how to feel about it. We draw people in and we reflect back at them, the things that this play does to them emotionally and that’s, I think one mark of a genius. I think Tennessee Williams is certainly that.
When Tom goes out every night saying he’s going to the movies, where do you think he’s really going?
Oh that’s for me to know and audiences to know for themselves! That’s the thing, we don’t have to tell people the answers to those questions because they can answer it themselves and they think that’s what they should do. Certainly I know the answer to that for myself and I’ve talk to John our director about it a great deal but I think he goes many different places. I think he’s constantly searching and seeking for some sense of some sense of belonging and some sense of identity that is not attainable within the environment of the tenement apartment about the alley in St. Louis.
What was it that drew you to this role specifically?
Well when the opportunity came to meet John and Cherry was already attached so the idea of being able to work with the two of them was something that was incredibly appealing and also the chance to go work at the A.R.T. (American Repertory Theater). When we did the play there we had no idea that it would be transferred to Broadway so I was really grateful for the experience to go and dive in and explore this play with these people in that environment it was the chance to continue the trajectory that I started with Angel’s in America to work on classic important American plays. That’s something that I’m really grateful for and to get to know a character that I knew peripherally but that I now have a tremendous affinity and respect for and that’s always the goal. So I feel above all grateful if that happens.
Do you remember the first time you because aware of the play?
(Cherry Jones – Amanda)
I think I found a copy of it that belonged to my mother and it was a first edition with the maroon dust jacket with a unicorn on it and I think I started reading it. I always found that I was a southerner with a chip on my shoulder once I came north being from Paris Tennessee originally and I always felt like Amanda was one of those oh yeah lets make those southern women freakish. I really had a chip on my shoulder about it. I didn’t buy it just because I lacked depth and life experience I couldn’t appreciate the woman’s dilemma and the beauty of the woman. I love her!
What do you think it is about Tennessee Williams that sustains the generations where you’re able to have a revival like this and is able to continue to flourish as a story?
You know we’ve done this production with young children in the house who stay right with it in part because the production is even for a child just the physicality of the production is so captivating if they’re only following just the beauty of it they stay with us. We’ve done it for many, many, many high school students. We gave a talk one day to a whole group of elderly men who were having a great deal of trouble coming out in their 80’s so we’ve really spanned quite and age range.
Do you think if this story happened today your character would be on medication?
It’s not the situation. She wouldn’t be on meds even if it happened today. The children might have had a little more help. Laura might have been in special education. Seriously she would have had a lot more help and I don’t know how she fed and clothed and sheltered those children when Mr. Wingfield abandoned them. She was on Mars. She was a Mississippi woman born before the turn of the century and she finds herself abandoned in St. Louis with two young children at the beginning of the 1920’s through the great depression. How did she feed them? How did she clothe them? How did she shelter them? If she could have gone back to Mississippi with those children she could have but there was nothing to back to or she was unwanted. So that she has kept them fed all these years shows what moxie she has, she’s a scraper. She is absolutely desperate now because she has a child like so many people do, capable of surviving on their own. Once Amanda is gone, how will this child survive without being thrown into some horrible state institution and the clock is ticking. So Tom Wingfield is about to be out the door. This hapless, undisciplined so-called poet is about to leave and the clock is ticking so she’s desperate and so ill equipped to deal with it. It begins in this heightened place because it’s life or death for that child.