CAMBRIDGE — The epigraph that Tennessee Williams provided for his semi-autobiographical 1944 play “The Glass Menagerie” is the last line of a poem by E.E. Cummings: “Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.”
That could be Tom Wingfield’s tribute to Laura, the sister he tries, in vain, to leave behind. Were Williams alive to see the new production by the American Repertory Theater, however, he might have turned to T. S. Eliot’s suggestion, in “Burnt Norton,” that “all time is eternally present.”
As the curtain rises, Tom addresses us from one of two hexagonal platforms (what director John Tiffany describes as a “hydrocarbon molecule”) above a reflective floor, so that he seems to be floating in space — and time.
It’s an apt beginning for a production that, grounded as it is in the excellence of its four actors, continually reminds us that “The Glass Menagerie” transcends time and place.
Williams himself, in his production notes, inveighed against “the straight realistic play with its genuine Frigidaire and authentic ice-cubes.”
He nonetheless went on to provide a detailed description of the Wingfield tenement, with its fire-escape entrance and its old-fashioned whatnot for Laura’s glass collection and its transparent gauze portières dividing living room from dining room.
Yet, as Tom tells us straight off, “this play is memory.” Williams set it in 1937 St. Louis, but the Wingfields’ experience of disillusion and disappointment is universal.
So at the ART, Tom and Laura and their mother, Amanda, are suspended in time. The platforms aren’t Tiffany’s only metaphor; the fire escape juts up out of the floor and spirals toward the ceiling like, in his words, “a unicorn’s horn.” As if it offered an escape into the world of the imagination, where the glass unicorn that is Laura’s favorite piece can be real.
Williams’s four characters are just as fragile as that unicorn; one bump from a bad actor and they can fall off the table and break. It’s to the credit of Tiffany’s quartet that they don’t. Left in the lurch by her telephone worker husband (who “fell in love with long distance”) and unprepared for a world without gracious living,
Amanda is obsessed with the idea that, just as she once entertained 17 gentlemen callers on a Sunday afternoon in Mississippi, Laura should be deluged with male visitors in their alley apartment. She could easily seem delusional, but Cherry Jones makes her into a woman who lives in the past because the present is too painful.
This Amanda dominates the stage, as if she were still the belle of the ball, and she dominates her children, leaning into Tom right from the start when she tells him to give his salivary glands a chance to function. When Jones puts on her party dress for the gentleman caller, she’s so charming, it’s a wonder he has any eyes for Laura, and when she sashays across the room, you can see how she won the cakewalk twice at Sunset Hill.
Celia Keenan-Bolger pushes Laura to the limit. Tom’s sister, slightly crippled by a childhood illness and terminally shy, is too dysfunctional to continue her course at Rubicam’s Business College; she takes refuge in her glass collection and the Victrola. Keenan-Bolger hunches her shoulders, pulls her head in like a turtle, sits on her hands, and walks stiffly, with just a hint of a limp.
But Amanda sees poetry in Laura, and you will, too, when Keenan-Bolger lights up describing the penguins in the zoo and the singing voice of the boy Laura liked in high school.
It’s not hard to see poetry in Zachary Quinto: he delivers every line as if it were verse he had just written. Quinto’s Tom is irritating, exasperating, and selfish (Tom is an aspiring artist, after all), and hangdog with his mother, but in his body language he’s protective of Laura.
So, in his own way, is the gentleman caller, who turns out to be Laura’s high-school crush. Brian J. Smith’s aw-shucks, regular-guy Jim is full of himself, but he knows it; he’s also flattered by Laura’s interest, and as soon as he kisses her, he knows he shouldn’t have.
At one point or another, Tom, Laura, and Amanda all peer out over the edge of the living room hexagon, as if that, too, might offer an escape.
But as Amanda reminds Tom, “In these tryin’ times, all we have to cling to is each other.”
The blessing of this production is that the three of them do just that.Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.