Glittering Translucence: The Glass Menagerie in Previews at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway

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The stage at the Belasco Theater was so empty it was naked. The set amounted to an ugly table with chairs, some cluttered shelves, and a phonograph. The backdrop was the stark brick wall of the theater itself. When Joe Mantello first appeared onstage, I mistook him for a techie until he began delivering his opening monologue, tackling a role usually played by a much younger man in a much better costume. I already found myself mulling over inevitable comparisons with the production of The Glass Menagerie at the Booth Theater in 2013 starring Cherry Jones (Amanda), Zachary Quinto (Tom), and Celia Kennan-Bolger (Laura). I wondered whether it was worth revisiting the play so soon after that great success, which was the first production I’d seen to portray Tom as a gay avatar of Tennessee Williams himself, adding new and unexpected dimensions to the proceedings; his arguments with his mother about where he was sneaking off to at night were never quite so poignant.

 

In that production, the tragedy of the Wingfield family played out on a literal island circumscribed by rippling ebony ooze. Laura seemed to materialize out of thin air, unexpectedly popping out of a couch with all of the suddenness of a half-forgotten memory that somehow intrudes on the consciousness again. This time, though, there was nothing but emptiness. In the shadows, Sally Field (Amanda) and Madison Ferris (Laura) were already visible as they waited in the orchestra to climb onstage. Bracing myself with the reminder that this was still in previews, I had no idea that I was about to be totally transported and enthralled.

 

A long silence ensued as the performers went through the cumbersome process of lifting Ferris’ wheelchair onto the stage. My heart skipped a beat. I had no idea that a performer with muscular dystrophy had been cast as Laura, who is described in the script as “crippled.” Out of her chair, back arched, and down on all fours, she moved with an indescribable elegance, flowing like water across the stage. I’d never seen a production before where the physical components of Laura ‘s handicap were explored with such nuance. Both the challenges and elegances of physical movement are so central to Ferris’ characterization that it almost feels at times like a dance performance (I was not at all surprised to read in the program that the Broadway newcomer has dance experience.) There is no awkwardness on display here, usually par for the course in performers’ interpretations of the shy and fragile character. Ferris’ Laura is long acclimated to the challenges of her difference. She owns them. And in her space, Laura moves confidently, uniquely, and even elegantly. Rather than her own inner demons, it is largely society’s cruel pigeonholing that forces her into the role of a pariah.

 

If Eugene O’Neill is the American Aeschylus and Arthur Miller some iteration of Sophocles, then Tennessee Williams is our Euripides. Both were celebrated for their multi-dimensional female protagonists, their powerful abilities as storytellers, their lines dripping with poetry, and their exploration of the forces of Bacchanalian wildness that always lurk just beneath the veneer of polite society. Needless to say, all of this is pure dynamite for actors. The Glass Menagerie is one of the great ensemble pieces in American theater, and the synergy between the members of this cast was particularly electric. I was initially unsure about Mantello’s interpretation of Tom, which in some ways couldn’t help but disappoint after Quinto’s revelatory queer reading of the role. Over time, though, the dichotomy between Tom’s maturity and the relative youth of his sister and mother highlighted that shimmering, slightly unreal quality that William hoped to capture in the play. If Quinto played Tom as the play’s author trapped claustrophobically in his own memories, Mantello portrays him something like the play’s director, separated from the past in time and space but putting on a show for us in the audience in which he selectively interacts with his former ghosts. The understatement of his performance attractively highlights both the intensity of Fields and the subtlety of Ferris.

 

Speaking of Fields, she is a force of nature as Amanda, a caged eagle. In her blind rage against the bars of her enclosure, she wounds herself and everyone around her. Now she is driven by a sense of rage over the isolation of her daughter and the selfishness of her son; a moment later, she is soft and maternal; at still other times, she’s lost in obsessive memories of better days. Fields’ Amanda channels the great heroines of world theater, echoing the rambling desperation of Blanche, the imperiousness of Lady Macbeth, and the spiteful wit of Hedda. There is a dangerous undercurrent to Field’s performance bound to her acute awareness of the desperation of her position. Her Amanda is nostalgic for the past but far from delusional about her present. She realizes that she is burdened with an alcoholic son who is about to abandon her and a handicapped daughter she cannot support. The prospect of a gentleman caller is the only hope that can save the Wingfields from themselves. But when her daughter balks in terror at this caller when he finally arrives, Amanda herself becomes the flirtatious center of attention. While she hosts him at dinner with her daughter quivering with embarrassment in the other room, there is an effect such as I have never seen before in any theater. The emptiness of the stage is suddenly revealed to be translucence, a fitting quality for a play named for glass sculpture. Without giving it away, I’ll say that it conveys the same idea of symbolic gulfs evoked in the previous production at the Booth Theatre where the family was literally trapped on an island.

 

The entire final act was illuminated by true candlelight, providing the scene with an ethereal, almost ghostly ambiance. Earlier in the play, Ferris portrayed Laura as a slightly spoiled young woman whose life’s meaning was reduced to subtle shows of rebellion against her mother’s will. Ferris obsessed over her glass figurines not with an air of insanity but one of triumph, lording over an imaginary world in which, for once, she could be in control and ignore the admonishments of the world around her. At last, though, she invites the gentleman caller into this world, where he finds that he has been set up as a kind of idol deified since high school. In this space, the way Laura moves and the way she uses her imagination are completely natural, and at least for a fleeting moment, he sees the beauty in her existence and not the stigma associated with it. The chemistry between Laura and her “suitor” (a bright eyed and bushy tailed Finn Wittrock) is sizzling, the most sexual of any interpretation I’ve seen. Their tender dance was the emotional climax of the night, symbolic of the themes of the entire production.

 

Like the casting of deaf actor John McGinty in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Ferris’ casting proves that physical difference or disability not only should be no bar to the display of talent, but can even bring new life to classic roles. As wonderful as Michael Arden was as Quasimodo and Celia Kennan-Bolger was as Laura (a sublime performance, in fact), there is something special about the truth that actors bring to parts when they share aspects of that character’s identity in real life. Many actors can try to imitate a limp, but few can move with the combination of grace and dexterity required by someone with muscular dystrophy, let alone one as gifted in physical storytelling as Madison Ferris.

 

Famously, The Glass Menagerie ends with Tom’s injunction for Laura to “blow (her) candles out.” Perhaps fittingly, this performance was the first I’ve seen in which she flat out shakes her head and refuses to do so. This production will linger in my imagination for a long time.

 

A Debate Judged by Hume Between Kant, Winckelmann, Fry, and Kimel on Art and Beauty, Part 1

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Some years ago, I dreamed that I was an anthropomorphic lawnmower chugging through rolling hills. I happened to meet Kant and Winckelmann, who were having a picnic and discussing the question, “What is the relationship between art and beauty?”

Kimel: Gentleman, when I heard that Kant and Winckelmann were going to be debating aesthetics and that I was invited here as the honorary judge, I rolled here as quickly as I could, even though I’m a busy appliance and have a lot of weeds to mow. So by all means, have at it, but try to hurry if you can.

Kant: But we didn’t invite you here as the judge. That’s Hume’s job. He’ll be here any moment. Winckelmann is my debate partner tonight. He’ll be the first speaker, and I’ll be the third. Pick a teammate of your own, and let’s begin as quickly as possible, before you wake up. My only request is that you record this dream, if you remember it.

Kimel: Alright, then. I choose Roger Fry, father of modern art criticism. He’ll be the second speaker, and I’ll be the fourth. But what’s the topic?

Kant: Whether all great art aspires to beauty, and if there is a universal standard of taste.

Hume and Fry presently materialized out of thin air. We took our places on opposite sides of the picnic table, and then we began the round. Winckelmann was the first to speak.

Winckelmann: The issue we’re considering is the relationship between art and beauty. Well, I’m confident that there can be no real debate on this question. All great artists aspire to create beauty, and they can accordingly be judged according to universalizing and objective standards concerned with how well they achieve this end. I would go so far as to say that any society which fails to recognize that art is fundamentally in the service of beauty possesses no sense of the superiority of balance, harmony, and proportion over their degenerate opposites immoderation, dissonance, and excess.

Now, during golden ages, technical standards of artistry are high, and authors produce finely tailored works of art marked by the features of balance, harmony, and proportion, which are, as I’ve already mentioned, the very hallmarks of beauty. At other time periods, though, these technical standards fall into precipitous decline. When hideous art is produced, on at least some level, viewers will invariably find themselves repulsed, though they might deceive themselves into calling an abomination a masterpiece, or lie about their true impressions to impress other people.

But when they make such a judgment, they aren’t evaluating the art itself; far from it! Instead, they’re weighing their own ideas associated with the piece—what the artist might have been saying, why he might have been saying it, and how he might have been saying it. These concepts, however, only exist in the imaginations of the viewers. In other words, they are extrinsic to the object itself, which can only be judged for good or ill on its own merits according to the sole criterion of beauty. And by beauty, again, I mean that which inspires strong positive sentiment of its own accord thanks to its proportions in themselves rather than any appeal to rationality; beauty acts as a sort of unmoved mover. Don’t blindly disagree with me just because your own society might produce inferior art—subconsciously, you must realize the horrible ugliness of your era, a world in which the inventor of the photograph dealt a death blow to all standards of technical craftsmanship, and utilitarian concerns rendered every urban cityscape a labyrinth of bombastic rhombuses. You call giant utilitarian boxes “architecture” and gory spectacles of violence “theater.” But history will have its say in the end, and expose the aesthetic standards of your era as degenerate.

Fry: Fuck Winckelmann, that took a long time. Your conclusions are totally misguided. Maybe because you were always subconsciously on the hunt for male beauty, you found in art criticism an outlet that empowered you to wax lyrically about it, discovering the one niche in your society where your desires could be discussed with poetic rapture yet moral impunity—the realm of nude Greek and Roman statuary. God knows that you wrote long and florid descriptions of ancient sculptures, describing them with a kind of scientific accuracy. So they call you the father of art history. But your theory that all artists are blindly groping at beauty, and that some geniuses have better eyesight than others, is preposterous.

In your time, the vast majority of Greek and Roman statues were undated. Trying to impose a chronological framework on the chaotic surviving evidence, you developed the theory that the art you found most beautiful was associated with the periods of the greatest human freedom. And so, the statues which you thought the best (usually exhibiting toned physiques and the balance and proportion associated with athletic male forms) were all said to come from the 5th century BC, the period of ancient democracy at its height. But the problem is, your theory was totally wrong. You arranged the statues completely arbitrarily. The true chronological sequence is often totally different from what you expected. You deified your own subconscious ideas about beauty to the point of claiming them as the foundations for an objective standard, but actually failed to create a universal paradigm useful to critics in all times and places.

Now, let me enlighten you about the true relationship between art and beauty, and teach you not to tussle with real philosophers. Beauty is not something objective–it exists in the eye of the beholder, as every schoolboy knows. What you think beautiful is not necessarily universally appealing to everyone.  There is no consensus when it comes to beauty, only a chorus of impressions. What is universal is the free interplay of ideas that comes about in the imagination when an observer experiences art. Why is a painting by Picasso a masterpiece? Because it has significant form. The arrangement of shapes inspires the mind to reflect on aesthetic ideas, though the piece itself might be disharmonious and turbulent. Beauty has nothing to do with the matter. Before the invention of the photograph, painters were praised for technical proficiency. But now we’re free to embrace art that is not necessarily harmonious or balanced or true to life, including non-western art, to which Greco-Roman naturalism is foreign. The aesthetic ideas the thing inspires are infinitely more important than the object’s beauty. And so I rest my case. My theory of formalism has completely supplanted all of your ideas, and is the final word on the interpretation of art.

At this point, Kant stepped forward…