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On the Monday after the snow finally stopped falling in D.C., Ford’s Theatre offered a free performance of its new production of The Glass Menagerie. In the second act’s climactic scene—when the painfully shy Laura is kissed by the man who will likely be her only gentleman caller—a voice rang out in the theater: “YEAH!” The audience (which included a large group of teens) met the moment with a mix of shock and giggles. The actors continued, somehow unfazed, but the softest moment in a play about vulnerability was interrupted by force.
The moment was more akin to one of Tennessee Williams’ other plays, A Streetcar Named Desire, in which the brutish Stanley chips away at the already failing Blanche, pushing her into full insanity. In The Glass Menagerie, Williams’ semi-autobiographical 1945 play, the destruction is far more subtle yet just as devastating: Most overtly broken is Laura, the unmarried daughter who walks with a limp and lives in her own reclusive fantasy world. The outsider, Jim, is kind but careless with the Wingfield family, which also includes the matriarch, Amanda, and dreamer son, Tom. When Jim breaks the horn off Laura’s glass unicorn (her favorite figurine from her collection), he declares that she should “never forgive him.”
“Now it’s just like all the other horses,” Laura tells him. “Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise.” That’s how I viewed the brutal outburst when I returned to Ford’s for another performance.
Mark Ramont’s production still had the same strengths and weaknesses upon a second viewing. Perhaps most successfully, Ramont embraces Williams’ description of The Glass Menagerie as a “memory play” in his staging and lighting cues. This includes the use of a scrim as a screen onto which the characters’ pre-recorded movements are projected, like the tragic figures in the films Tom claims he’s watching when he stays out late.
As Tom tells the audience at the beginning, the play is “sentimental, it is not realistic.” This is most poignantly captured when Jim and Laura waltz, a dance that begins honestly enough before turning into an old Hollywood number, complete with a starry background. It’s how Tom would choose to remember his beloved sister in that moment: beautiful and graceful and loved. It’s visually striking and emotionally crushing in its fabrication.
What’s missing—especially from the second act—is a sense of devastation and unseen heartbreak. Part of the problem may stem from some staging choices, which go for unnecessary laughs (when Jim hands Laura a piece of gum, she hesitates then breaks off a small bit—a moment of levity in a scene that should be preparing the audience for a tragic conclusion).
As Amanda, Madeleine Potter strikes the best balance. She’s ridiculous but with a sense of elegance; down-and-out yet hopeful. The audience can laugh at Amanda, but it still feels deeply for her when she screams at Tom to abandon his family like his father, a “telephone man who fell in love with long distances.”
Tom Story is much broader than readers of the play may imagine as Tom, the dreamy writer who curses his wasted hours as a warehouse worker and plots an escape to the Merchant Marines. “I’m starting to boil inside,” he tells Jim. “I know I seem dreamy, but inside—well, I’m boiling!” Story’s saucepan spilleth over. He’s over-the-top, loud, and perhaps too funny. It’s not that Story’s performance isn’t enjoyable to watch; it just doesn’t offer the right counterpoint to the largeness of Amanda’s character. There are exceptions, especially in the quiet moments Amanda and Tom share together on the fire escape, when Potter and Story bring a real sense of intimacy to the words.
That I wasn’t in tears by the end of the second act was a disappointment. Laura’s inward collapse and Amanda’s shrinking resign upon learning that Jim is actually engaged is a gut punch but only if the audience is already imbued with a sense of coming dread. That there were laughs—and not tears—in the final moments of the production made it less singular and more sitcom—less like a unicorn and too much like the other horses.
511 10th St. NW. $20–$62. (202) 347-4833. fords.org.