The Glass Menagerie’s doomed Wingfield family—its vanished father the “telephone man who fell in love with long distances”—is one of the great representations of the defeated South, forever on the wrong side of history. And at its proud, bitter heart is that holy grail of roles for middle-aged female actresses: the foolish, tender, seductive, shrewish southern belle Amanda. Beaten down, but kept young by a nostalgic obsession with her extinct Mississippi Delta home, Amanda is about as far from a sturdy, corn-fed beauty as you can get. Which makes one wonder about the casting of Jessica “salt of the earth” Lange—just one of several curious choices in the semi-satisfying new production of Tennessee Williams’s heartbreaking 1945 “memory play.”
What Lange does to bridge the gap between her natural stoicism and her weathered-coquette character is to overcorrect, the way people drop the “g” in guacamole or put the stress on the second syllable of Himalayas. Rather than transmuting her northern power into southern power, she affects a far-off gaze and a lilting, girlish accent, heavy on the elision. She recalls a much gentler, softer Williams heroine than the frequently aggressive Amanda.
As several critics have pointed out, Lange is playing Amanda in the manner of Blanche DuBois, and in fact, she’s a pretty good Blanche. Moreover, that characterization can be effective now and then, especially when Lange lingers over lovely, ancient-sounding words like “jonquil” and “Cutrere.” But you miss what Williams called Amanda’s tendency to be “unwittingly cruel” through her foolishness. When Amanda tells her freshly devastated daughter, “I don’t believe that I would play the Victrola,” it comes across as a wistful observation rather than an implicit threat. She seems like one of those northern mothers people in the South make fun of—the ones who can’t say “no” like they mean it.
Christian Slater, the stocky, raspy-voiced eighties heartthrob who recently starred to acclaim in a London production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, is also an unusual casting choice. Amanda’s son, Tom, is usually played as a sensitive poet who is forced to work at a warehouse to support his mother and sister. (One imagines Dallas Roberts taking that tack, but Roberts left the production just weeks before the show’s opening, after reportedly running afoul of his co-star.) So, instead of getting a sympathetic, pretty-boy daydreamer, here we have the masculine Slater, who galumphs around in ill-fitting work clothes and is so heterosexual that the scenes of fraternal affection with his crippled sister have an almost sexual charge. Playing Tom as butch is a neat and interesting choice: Suddenly you can see how miserable he must be as a working-class laborer who just happens to have a baffling, burning desire to write poetry.
As his phonograph and glass-animal-obsessed 24-year-old spinster sister Laura, Sarah Paulson—who memorably played editor Vikki Hiller in the Doris Day–Rock Hudson parody Down With Love—delivers, as does her Gentleman Caller (Josh Lucas). When Tom and Amanda adjourn to the kitchen to let the would-be young lovers spend time alone (and get right to the play’s heart-smashing climax) in the candlelit sitting room, the whole tenor of the show changes for the better.
One feels particularly grateful to see this scene, because much of the action that comes before is concealed by an almost opaque lace curtain that separates the living room in the foreground from the dining room in the rear. Williams’s original staging concept involved a “screen device” onto which would be projected magic-lantern slides of pertinent images (like one of flowers when Laura’s pet name “Blue Roses” was spoken). Williams left a lot of leeway for interpretation regarding the device, but David Leveaux (who also directed the current revival of Fiddler on the Roof) has practically made the divider into its own character. The actors are constantly fussing with the fabric, drawing the curtain to and fro, the rings annoyingly swishing back and forth. Most frustrating, several scenes are carried out behind it, in silhouette.
Still, almost any production of this exquisite play, however flawed, is worth seeing. One might pine for a more southern, synced-up ensemble or for a scrim instead of a veil; but a blurry Yankee interpretation of Williams will always be better than no Williams at all. And Streetcar doesn’t open until next month.
The Glass Menagerie
Directed by David Leveaux.
Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Through July 16.