Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Glass Menagerie, at Roundabout

Growing up without seeing much theater, for many years I thought of plays primarily as texts, since in order to experience a play at all I generally had to read it. A good production, I assumed, was one that followed the playwright's instructions down to the millimeter. I didn't really appreciate how wrong I was until I started putting up my own plays, and saw how my casts and directors immediately brought the scripts to life by adding elements I hadn't known needed to be there, and how sometimes they changed things—sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Theater is a slippery and collaborative thing. . . . However, when I see a production of a classic play that I've read before, I still can't help but think of the production in terms of its fidelity to the written word. So that was my state of mind when I took my seat on the 23rd at the Roundabout's wonderful production of The Glass Menagerie, starring Judith Ivey as Amanda Wingfield, Patch Darragh as Tom Wingfield, Keira Keeley as Laura Wingfield, and Michael Mosley as Jim O'Connor, the gentleman caller, and directed by Gordon Edelstein.

Judith Ivey is fabulous, so much so that I wish I hadn't missed her as Ann Landers in The Lady With All the Answers (not quite enough so as to make me youtube her episodes of “Designing Women”). Much of the power of this production comes from her portrayal of Amanda Wingfield as a strong personality stuck with the impossible job of holding the family together. She may badger her children, but it reads as a combination of her prerogative as an aging mother, and the fact of her sheer big-souled vitality. She just seems bigger than the other characters on stage, and when she pecks at them it doesn't feel like she's needy, but rather like her superfluous energy is sloshing over the sides of her personality onto everyone else. Maybe Laura and, particularly, Tom can't take it, but what is Amanda supposed to do? You can't imagine her holding still for more than a few seconds. . . . There was a wonderful moment at Tuesday's performance, when Amanda is on the phone trying to sell subscriptions to a ladies' magazine. Amanda is on hold as Ida Scott goes to check on whatever she's got in the oven, and she idly, cheerfully, and seemingly unconsciously does a little dance as she waits. We may be infuriated along with Tom when she licks her hand and attacks his cowlick, but having also seen that same uncontainable energy released in this charming, unaggressive way, no one in the audience could wish to see Amanda emptied of all of it. Neither, of course, could Tom or Laura, which goes a ways towards illuminating the bonds that, though largely unmentioned, must tie them to their forceful mother—they're not merely slaves to her overbearing personality. Ivey's performance gets at the dignified heart of Williams's character.

Except I'm not sure he wrote her that way. In the character description he calls Amanda “a little woman of great but confused vitality clinging frantically to another time and place.” Ivey's vitality doesn't seem particularly confused to me, and, though she certainly misses having wealth, youth, and servants (duh), it feels unfair to Ivey's Amanda to say that she's “clinging frantically” to them. And she's not a little woman! Although I know it isn't true, in my memory it seems almost as if she's taller than Patch Darragh's Tom Wingfield! Yet stature seems to have been much in Williams's mind when he wrote the character; there in the initial description he again refers to her as “a slight person,” and later in Scene IV the stage directions refer to her “aged but childish features.” You would never be able to reconstruct these stage directions from a viewing of this performance. (By the way, the practice of disregarding stage directions while treating the spoken lines with reverence never makes much sense to me--a bit less extremism on both counts seems more sensible.) Ivey's Amanda is more like a no-nonsense Texan than a Southern belle, and seems far removed from Blanche DuBois.

In Scene III, when Amanda confronts Laura about having dropped out of the business school, she warns her of the danger of turning into one of the “barely tolerated spinsters,” “little birdlike women without any nest—eating the crust of humility all their life!” In the Roundabout production, such women are alien to Amanda—she's making the impossible demand that Laura become more like her. How different the scene would be if Amanda were actually played by a birdlike woman, as Williams intended her to be.

All that is a moot point, since what is Ivey supposed to do, shrink? The truth is that to me it doesn't matter very much what Williams saw in his head—the fascinating thing about theater is that different casts can say the exact same words, in the exact same order, and have them mean radically different things, all of which might be equally valid.

Except that they aren't exactly the same words. Some of the changes are practical accommodations made for today's audience—whereas Williams assumed that naming the gentleman caller O'Connor would be explanation enough for why they have to serve him fish on Friday, Darragh and Ivey have to clue us in on the Irish connection—also, I'm pretty sure that the Roundabout production removes the dreaded “n” word from Scene I, since adhering strictly to the script there would have added a racial dimension that Williams didn't intend for the play. . . . Translating a piece from one time to another, or from one audience to another, necessitates the same kinds of little distortions that translating from one language to another does.

There are also changes in delivery that come with the territory of Ivey's physicality and presence. For example, in Scene IV, the stage directions call for Amanda to “sobbingly” deliver the line “My devotion has made me a witch and so I make myself hateful to my children!” Ivey doesn't deliver it sobbingly—she doesn't deliver it with an exclamation mark, either. Reading the text my impression is that Amanda is guilt-tripping Tom into joining her scheme, by blasting her emotion at him. Ivey's Amanda, on the other hand, doesn't like revealing her pain; she would keep it quiet if she could, but circumstances demand otherwise.

Other changes include a bit more business made between Amanda and Laura about the “gay deceivers” when Amanda stuffs Laura's bra with the powder puffs, and the omission of the weary laugh Amanda gives in Scene III when she says that a business career would “give us indigestion.” In my text O'Connor's the one who identifies the wine as dandelion wine, to Laura, and Amanda just calls it “wine;” on stage, instead of “how about coaxing Sister to drink a little wine?,” she includes the modifier “dandelion,” I suspect just for the pleasure of having Ivey drawl out the phrase so beautifully, which of course rhymes in the accent she's using. When Tom asks Amanda not to be suspicious of him, Ivey says “I'm suspicious of every word that comes out of your mouth!,” but she doesn't say that in my copy of the text; at the Roundabout Scene III opens with a lot of business about Tom's posture as he sits typing, which I suspect has been improvised so as to accommodate the unfortunate choice to have Tom narrate the play as its writer, instead of as a returning Merchant Marine. It occurred to me to wonder if Williams published a revised version of the play, but I don't think so; presumably the changes are due to a combination of directorial decisions and a flexible and spontaneous relationship to the lines. It raises the interesting question of just how far one could depart from Williams's word-for-word script, before one wound up doing a play that was very closely related to it, but not actually his. But it's not as if I'm complaining—I prefer the play with Ivey's Amanda, as opposed to what I think of as Williams's.

I guess it looks like I'm laying all the credit, or blame, for the deviations from the script at Ivey's feet, when her performance was simply the one that struck me the most. The director has made it his own play as well; gone are the legends and images superimposed upon the stage transparency, which the text calls for, and the omission of which lessens the self-professed unrealisticness of this memory play. On the other hand, the set is much simpler than the extravagant one Williams calls for, probably thanks to budgetary constraints as much as anything else; the fire escape is only mimed now, and whereas the script calls for characters to sometimes enter and exit via the fire escape, they now do so through the front door or the wings. Just before Amanda enters the apartment and berates Laura for having dropped out of business college, the stage directions call for us to see her trudging up the fire escape, thereby opening the scene with a reminder of Amanda's tribulations and disappointments (since, for someone who used to be a genteel young belle with servants, I imagine there's something low-class and humbling about having to use the fire escape for her comings and goings)—in Edelstein's production she appears to us, and Tom and Laura, when she bursts through the front door.

Another important choice is the degree of Laura's disability. Williams leaves open the possibility that her limp might be hardly noticeable, but no one could fail to notice the one Keira Keeley gives her. What really cripples Laura is her shyness, but the fact that her physical deformity is also so obviously and objectively real lessens the chance that we will lose patience with her, and deepens our sense of her vulnerability.

Her exaggerated limp also, I think, makes the ultimately disastrous gentleman caller momentarily more sympathetic, when he protests that he never even noticed it—given how extreme Laura's limp is, this is obviously a mere gallantry—if her deformity were slighter, it might have been a believable claim, and a sign of O'Connor's unempathic self-centeredness. . . . As a total digression, my friend remarked as we left the theater that he'd forgotten how much he hated that evil Dale Carnegie-spouting son of a bitch Jim O'Connor. O'Connor is a member of what I think of as the Claudio class of villains, Claudio from Much Ado About Nothing; people of limited charm and unlimited entitledness, who pat themselves on the back for the ease with which they maneuver through the world, a shallow soul-less world that they perceive only as a platform upon which they can fulfill their banal ambitions; unlike Claudio, O'Connor has at least been tempered somewhat by comeuppances. (Claudio is the character I despise most in all of literature. I would rather have Darth Vader as a bigamous son-in-law to both my daughters than spend a half-hour in polite conversation with Claudio. Often I fantasize about a Much Ado About Nothing Part II, which would consist of nothing but Claudio being stripped naked and set loose in the forest to be hunted down by rabid wolves and killer bees.)

The only interpretive choice which I really regretted was, as I mentioned, the transformation of Tom-as-narrator from returning sailor to autobiographical writer. The romanticism of the returning sailor is so much more in keeping with the “unrealistic” atmosphere the play strives for, and the peripatetic life of a Merchant Marine is central to the irony of Tom's arc: the fact that he gets out but at the same time never escapes. This is expressed far more weakly by the image of Tom typing away in the same apartment the play takes place in. . . . Also, depicting him as the writer of the play, and not just the narrator, stresses the autobiographical aspect of the play in an unnecessarily strong and somehow corny way, as well as a distorting one (Tom Wingfield is not Tennessee Williams, despite their similarities). But whatever.

Anyway, if this essay counts as a review at all, it's a good review and you should go see the show if you can. I'm not picking out deviations from the script as a mean-spirited way of policing undisciplined and irreverent actors and directors, but as a way to think about theatrical collaboration. From a legal, practical point of view, some one person has to hold the copyright on a play, and it makes more sense that it should be the playwright than anyone else. But the play doesn't really belong to the writer, certainly not when it's being performed. It's not there to provide the writer with an outlet for “self-expression” (if the only thing you have to express is “yourself,” you should refrain from talking). A play is a tool that the other artists involved use in order to make their own art, and that the audience uses in order to learn or feel or think something; and, for the writer, the actors and director and audience are tools, as well. I, at least, have had the experience of sitting in the audience to watch my own play and feeling that, despite the ineradicable intimacy I share with the material, I've relinquished control and, really, for the moment, ownership (albeit never in a legal sense!) to the director, and to the actors who have to stand on the stage and face the audience.


Mike Lindgren said...

Really good piece, my friend.

"A little silver slipper of a moon…"

Mike Lindgren said...

Jim, you need to write something again, you asshole, or this just is stupid.