Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Glass Menagerie

The Glass Menagerie put Tennessee Williams on the map, launching him from near-nobody to internationally celebrated playwright. Lavishly praised by critics and embraced by audiences when it premiered on Broadway in 1944, Menagerie has long since become an American classic. It has been revived on Broadway alone seven times--at least once a decade since the 1960s. But only the current revival (at the Belasco Theater through early July) has featured a disabled actor in the role of Laura Wingfield, the young woman who, following a bout of pleurisy as a teenager, has been left with a limp and very low self-esteem.

Julieta Cervantes
That the role is usually cast with non-disabled and often conventionally beautiful actresses (Calista Flockhart and Celia Keenan-Bolger played Laura in two recent Broadway revivals) isn't terribly surprising. Broadway--really, American mass entertainment in general--has a long history of boneheadedness when it comes to any kind of difference, starting with, oh, blackface minstrelsy, wending past every white actor in an Asian or Native American or Latinx role, pausing to wave along the way at myriad straight performers playing gay or trans people, and tipping a hat at all the thespians who've won awards for stuttering, contorting, looking vacant or vaguely crazy, or learning how to sit convincingly in a wheelchair. I suppose if mass entertainment's most indelible portrayals of disability continue to hover somewhere around Forrest Gump territory, then hiring a person with an actual disability to play a character with something as seemingly slight as a bum leg is hardly a cultural priority. But in casting Madison Ferris, a 25-year-old woman with muscular dystrophy, director Sam Gold upends the longstanding interpretation of Laura as a trembling waif so emotionally fragile and physically scarred that her psyche can be pulverized by a single dashed chance at love and a little broken glass.

Williams described Menagerie as a "memory play," and in it, he recalls his life with his doting if overbearing mother, Edwina, and his beloved older sister, Rose, whose struggles with schizophrenia ended with a botched lobotomy and subsequent institutionalization. Williams's alter ego, Tom Wingfield (Joe Mantello), narrates Menagerie, looking back on his youth as an aspiring writer supporting his mother and sister with factory work. Before he follows in his father's footsteps and splits for good, Tom sneaks off nightly to drink, watch movies and--at least as I read it--enjoy the occasional furtive tryst with other closeted gay men. Amanda Wingfield (Sally Field), Edwina's alter ego, is a bitter, aging southern belle who traded status and upward mobility for a marriage to a charming, philandering alcoholic. When the play begins, Mr. Wingfield has been gone 16 years. Amanda, still reeling from the abandonment, struggles to get by in a small, dumpy St. Louis apartment where she simultaneously dotes on and resents the hell out of her two grown children.

Julieta Cervantes

In Williams's rendering, Laura's limp has left her even more awkward and shy than she was before she got sick. So anxious and self-conscious that taking classes or seeking work causes her to become physically ill, she spends her days listening to old records, wandering around town and playing with her collection of tiny glass animals. Her experience hardly plays into Amanda's near-obsessive desire to marry her off to the kind of handsome, successful man she long dreamed of for herself.

It's easy enough, then, to pair the fragile, diffident Laura with the driving, manic Amanda, which is how the show is often staged: mother becomes the emotional mouthpiece for the stunted daughter, who wants for herself what her mother wants for her. But Gold doesn't do that. An expert in family dynamics (he won a Tony for his direction of Fun Home), Gold subverts the play into one that speaks volumes about living with disability. His is not a traditional adaptation; the action here is taking place in Tom Wingfield's head. The production is starkly lit, sparsely set, often weirdly dreamlike, and at one point it rains, soaking the actors.

Some have accused Gold of exploiting disability for cheap effect. But as the mom of a special kid who hangs with parents of special kids, I'm here to tell you: This is a production that gets us.

In the opening scene, Tom bounds up a set of stairs and onto the stage. Amanda and Laura don't have it quite as easy: Mother drags a wheelchair, while helping her daughter negotiate the steps. Ferris is a wonder of strength and flexibility, and her meticulous progress up the stairs involves hands, legs, butt, and some remarkable folding. Gold stretches the moment to let Laura's efforts sink in.

Laura's disability is woven into life in the Wingfield household. I wish I could bottle the way Field's Amanda chats amiably on the phone while absentmindedly helping Laura, who is splayed on the dinner table, work through a series of PT exercises. These moments may challenge some audiences' expectations, but they're hardly exploitative. Laura's getting the treatment she needs, moving how she needs to move. In a world that wasn't designed with her in mind, that takes effort.

We notice how Laura moves because her moves are unique. Gold often has Mantello and Field sit cross-legged or in a kneeling position, as Ferris does when she's not in her wheelchair. The positions, which seem natural for Ferris, don't look terribly comfortable for other two actors, but families in close quarters can't help but pick up on each other's habits.

Because Amanda and Tom love Laura, they see her not as a collection of symptoms, but as a daughter and sister. This is something that's overlooked by many people who don't live with disability--people who stare at disabled kids or pity them, who call their parents "saints" for simply loving and raising them. In this version of Menagerie, Sally Field's Amanda comes off as less deluded than sad, a slightly broken, outspoken woman who loves her children and can't for the life of her understand why everyone else doesn't, too. She's sometimes a little inappropriate, but then, whose mom isn't?

When I saw the show, a few spectators snickered at Amanda's repeated, hotly defensive insistence that Laura was "not crippled." But when you love someone, you don't see them as a diagnosis--which is why I sometimes need to step out of myself and contemplate my son from a clinical distance or seek an outsider's perspective. I love him so much that I sometimes need to remind myself that he's not like other kids. I love him so much that I sometimes forget to see him. Amanda sees her daughter's beauty, the care she puts into her collection of glass animals, her potential. Her wheelchair? That old thing? What's the big deal?

Ferris's Laura is no shrinking violet like so many other Lauras are. She's more of a levelheaded badass than many Williams women--less a flighty, fluttery Blanche than a pensive, stolid Stella. This may frustrate purists who want Laura to have a quietly measured breakdown after the Gentleman Caller (here played beautifully by Finn Whitrock as both dim and bighearted) accidentally breaks her favorite glass animal (a unicorn, natch!). But Ferris makes a warrior of Laura: She controls of what she can and enjoys a fulfilling inner life, ultimately possessing far greater insight into the ways of an unfair world than her mother can. This upends the mother/daughter dynamic typical of The Glass Menagerie revivals, and if that bothers you, skip it. Maybe go see Phantom of the Opera.

Me? I'm hoping to return to catch Ferris' defiant reaction when Mantello's Tom, still haunted by memories of Laura, wishes aloud for her to let him be.

Tickets for The Glass Menagerie are available for deeply discounted prices on TDF.ORG and at TKTS booths for day-of sales. You can also pay full price on the broadway.com website, check broadwaybox.com for special offers, or try your luck with the TodayTix app.

Liz Wollman is associate professor of music at Baruch College, CUNY, and serves on the doctoral faculty of the theater department at the CUNY Graduate Center. She writes a lot of academic books and articles about the musical theater, and also contributes frequently to the Show Showdown blog. She's married to Andy, who edited this piece, and is the fiercely proud if occasionally inappropriate mom to Paulina and Philip. She's also an Extreme Kids & Crew board member, which makes her very happy.   

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