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The magic starts before the dialogue, even: A man in a sailor’s peacoat steps from the wings to light a cigarette, and as he blows out the match, the house lights extinguish themselves along with the flame. If it feels a little Lawrence of Arabia, it also feels absolutely right: This is the initial image of The Glass Menagerie, that superb study in manipulative, nonrealist stagecraft. And that solitary figure’s opening line, after all, is Tennessee Williams at his sly, charming best: “Yes, I have tricks in my pocket.”

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What’s genuinely magical about the moment, though, isn’t the lighting gimmick, however deft director Gregory Mosher is about deploying it. It’s the unmistakable sense, as those first words fall cynical and Southern-lazy from his lips, that Jason Butler Harner’s Tom can’t rest entirely easy with himself—that he knows what his tricks have cost him, will cost him all his life. What they’ve cost his family—never mind that we haven’t met them yet. It’s freighted with subtext, that first line, heavy with bitterness and regret and the aching awareness that life comes front-loaded with impossible choices—and it’s of a piece with what Harner will do throughout his opening speech and indeed throughout the evening. His carefully shaded performance alone would make Mosher’s superbly sensitive production a worthwhile return visit to the bleak house of Tennessee Williams’ Wingfield family. What joy, then, for Williams fans and Kennedy Center subscribers that his castmates match him beat for beat, subtlety for subtlety.

It’s an impressive display, from an impressive lineup: Jennifer Dundas, exquisitely fragile as Tom’s sheltered sister, Laura, whose limp has never been as limiting as her own self-doubt and her mother’s stifling concern; Corey Brill, immensely humane as the Gentleman Caller who kindles her spirit and then crushes it, unwittingly, all in one heartbreaking sequence in the second act; and of course the hugely sympathetic Sally Field as Amanda, the gallant, foolish, frantic Wingfield matriarch, who can’t see that her desperate struggle to ensure her impoverished family’s future is destroying her children. All of them seem to understand, in their very bones, the crucial thing about Tennessee Williams—his abiding generosity, his tenderness, for even his most damaged and damaging characters. All of them seem, in their presentation of this sweet, sad story, always to be remembering a characteristically melancholy sentence in his production notes: “When you look at a piece of delicately spun glass you think of two things: how beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken.” All of them, quite simply, are magnificent.

Rarely does a production work so smoothly on every level. Mosher directs with style and smarts—he’s arranged Field’s first appearance, for instance, in a way that gently precludes the star-welcoming applause that can be so deadly in a play’s early moments. He’s attuned to the play’s surprising sense of humor, too; there’s wry comedy in Harner’s crisp diction, in his knowing inflections, and there are unexpected laughs in the lines other players deliver. Designers John Lee Beatty and Aaron Copp deliver a setting and a lighting scheme that make the Wingfields’ shabby St. Louis apartment look like something out of El Greco—just as Williams wished—and they allow Mosher to experiment, a little playfully, with a bit of projections trickery the author specified in the play’s first incarnation. (As the Wingfields scheme and dream, the image in a framed portrait of Amanda’s long-departed husband changes to suit.) Jane Greenwood’s costumes are every bit as apt at establishing mood and character. Amanda’s frayed dignity, her desperate embrace of a past that has precious little relevance to her present, the constricting influence of her constant worry, the scope of her delusion about Laura’s prospects: All of these have analogues in what Field and her co-stars wear.

Perhaps it’s the pervasiveness of politics in this city, this summer, but one thing that comes through with the clarity of an etching in this production is how adeptly Amanda Wingfield fosters anxiety in the territory she’s so desperate to control. She sees peril in every forkful of food, in every outdoor stroll, in every development expected or unforeseen, and she articulates it as often as she opens her mouth. And as she keeps insisting that everyone needs to sacrifice a little freedom and happiness “in these trying times,” it’s hard not to grasp how she maintains her authority: by playing to everyone’s fears. Never thought Sally Field would remind anyone of John Ashcroft, but…

Even so, it’s impossible to condemn this Amanda: Field grounds her destructive behavior so thoroughly in her own doubts and disappointments that pity is the only possible response. Pity, and warmth, and even the fleeting hope, as impossible as those Amanda herself keeps floating, that maybe this time fortune will favor her, that she’ll manage to understand her quiet daughter and her dreamer son, that he’ll stay rather than fleeing like his father, and that mother and children will find a way to move together into the future that seems so endlessly frightening.

It can’t be, of course: “The cities swept about me like dead leaves,” Harner’s long-departed Tom says in his final monologue, looking back from his lonely narrator’s vantage. At center stage, in a past he’s fled but can never escape, sits Dundas’ Laura, beautiful and broken, extinguishing one by one the bright candles of everyone’s hopes.CP