Revival Retrospective: The Glass Menagerie

Theatre Features
Revival Retrospective: The Glass Menagerie

More than 70 years have passed since Tennessee Williams’s debut as a playwright at the Civic Theatre in Chicago, and since then The Glass Menagerie has been cemented as an American classic. The familiar tale of an aging Southern belle, her restless poet of a son and painfully shy and socially stunted daughter is making its eighth debut on Broadway this year, starring Sally Field and Joe Mantello. In light of the most recent revival, which officially opens on March 9, Paste takes a look back at those who came before and laid the foundations for the 2017 production.

The Debut
On December 26, 1944, The Glass Menagerie opened for the first time at the Civic Theatre in Chicago. The original cast of the show consisted of Laurette Taylor as Amanda Wingfield, Eddie Dowling as Tom, Julie Haydon as Laura and Anthony Ross as The Gentleman Caller.

Despite a cloud of uncertainty plaguing the play’s pre-production—including a letter Williams wrote to the editor of the Chicago Herald-American in which he complained that “since businessmen and gamblers discovered that theater could be made part of their empire” there had been unfavorable “distortions” to his play—the show opened to great reviews, helped greatly by the first written by the Chicago Tribune’s Claudia Cassidy. “Etched in the shadows of a man’s memory, it comes alive in theater terms of words, motion, lighting, and music,” Cassidy wrote in her December 27, 1944 review. “If it is your play, as it is mine, it reaches out tentacles, first tentative, then gripping and you are caught in its spell.”

After a 10-week run in Chicago, The Glass Menagerie made its way to New York in March, with the entire original cast coming to make its Broadway debut. The show opened at the Playhouse Theatre on March 31, 1945, and was received extremely well, with the cast taking 24 curtain calls on its first night. Dowling described the crowd that came backstage after the final curtain as “like after a World Series game when they come down out of the stands.” The reviews that followed were also overwhelmingly positive, with The New York Times’s Lewis Nichols writing, “The theatre opened its Easter basket the night before and found it a particularly rich one.” The New York Daily News wrote, “Hardly anything happens in it and it is as quiet as quiet can be—yet, when one leaves the Playhouse and meets reality on the 48th St. sidewalk, one realizes that some kind of hypnotism has been at work.” After a run of 563 performances at the Playhouse, The Glass Menagerie’s first foray on the Great White Way was complete.

The Revivals
The show’s first revival came in 1965, with Maureen Stapleton heading the production as Amanda. Reviews were mixed, the cast seemingly crushed by the expectations of the first production. “Maureen Stapleton had a harder time—we were the first Broadway revival of Glass Menagerie, and Maureen was haunted by having seen the original one,” Piper Laurie, who played Laura in the 1965 production, told The New York Times in 2014. Stapleton took another stab as Amanda in the next revival in 1975 opposite Rip Torn’s Tom. The show opened to better but still mixed reviews than its previous production, some commending the show for its effort to read the character narrations but others noting their confusion with Torn’s wild and abrasive take on the character of Tom.

The 1983 revival starred Jessica Tandy—who originated the role of Blanche DuBois in Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire in 1948—as Amanda. This was the first major production to use some of the slide projections the book calls for, and Tandy gave a powerhouse performance as Amanda, Frank Rich of The New York Times writing, “It is Miss Tandy’s ability to ascend to that same realm—to give us not just the simple truth, but ‘truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion’—that makes her performance a piece of music that lingers in our minds as persistently as Amanda lingered in the author’s.” However, the reviews for the play as a whole were overall negative, the supporting cast taking the brunt of the criticism for the disjointed performance.

The next production came 11 years later, starring Broadway legend Julie Harris as Amanda and Calista Flockhart making her Broadway debut as Laura. Possibly the most literal translation of the book onto stage, this revival included all of the slide projections outlined, images and title cards appearing as both foreshadowing and tone reiteration. Again, The Glass Menagerie was plagued by mixed reviews, with Harris failing to live up to the expectations her five previous Tony’s provided, and Zeljko Ivanek’s Tom lacking “a vital poetic element” necessary for the character, per The New York Times’s review. Flockhart and Kevin Kilner’s Gentleman Caller were the best received among the cast, but combined with the other lackluster performances, the play critically suffered as a whole.

Perhaps the most shaky of all the revivals, 2005’s was packed with star power with a cast that included Jessica Lange as Amanda and Christian Slater as Tom. And though the celebrity aspect drew in ticket buyers, the reviews were less than flattering. Most critics focused on the mischaracterizations of Amanda and Tom, Lange playing the matriarch too dreamy and Slater playing the son too masculine. Sarah Paulson’s Laura, her performance conveying the daughter who never grew up, was the one shining light across most reviews, but the stark contrasts of all the characters created a confused performance overall. “It could be argued (by a deconstructionist in a really good mood) that since everyone in The Glass Menagerie is lonely, this medley of conflicting acting styles appropriately underscores the characters’ isolation,” Ben Brantley wrote in his New York Times review. “But the sum effect is without emotional impact.”

The most recent Broadway revival before this season’s may be the play’s most successful. 2013’s Glass Menagerie not only included a star-studded cast—including Cherry Jones as Amanda and Zachary Quinto as Tom—but it also had the driving force of director John Tiffany (Once, West End’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) leading the play to seven Tony nominations, with one win for Best Lighting Design of a Play. “This production makes clear that The Glass Menagerie belongs on the same exclusive shelf as Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Death of a Salesman and Williams’s own Streetcar Named Desire,” Brantley wrote in his 2013 Times review. “It is not a lovely little memory play; it’s a great memory tragedy.” Though it didn’t win in the category of Best Revival of a Play, it surely takes the victory in that category among its own predecessors on Broadway so far.

What’s Next
The newest production of The Glass Menagerie is helmed by director Sam Gold, bringing his 2015 reinterpretation of the play from Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s stage to Broadway this year. The production began previews on February 7 at the Belasco Theatre, and is set to open officially on March 9.

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