Broadway is welcoming a stunning set of revivals this year (including a production of Machinal at Roundabout in December/January!), none more anticipated than a production of The Glass Menagerie transferring to the Booth Theater from its successful mounting at the American Repertory Theatre under the direction of National Theatre of Scotland maestro John Tiffany. It stars Cherry Jones and Zachary Quinto but in this review of the ART production from The New York Times‘ Ben Brantley, I was more interested in his description of how the mise-en-scene of the play offers a unique insight into the function of memory and environment to tell this well-trodden play. The emphasis below is mine; these were the parts of the article that for me echoed a bit of our approach to Vanya:
The set and costume designer Bob Crowley has envisioned the cramped apartment shared by Amanda and her children, Tom and Laura (Ms. Keenan-Bolger), as polygonal platforms on the edge of eternal night. I don’t mean just the shadows that lap at the set. (Natasha Katz is the magic-making lighting designer.)
A moat of black liquid lies, placid and menacing, in front of the stage, and every so often one of the characters walks to its brink and stares into it. It’s the abyss — of death, yes, but even worse, of being lost in life — that threatens these three family members who cling together so fractiously.
The forms this clinging takes are among the best known in American drama. Amanda is the former Southern belle, whose handsome, restless husband left her 16 years ago with two children, whom she nags and prods relentlessly, in the voice of a dead civilization.
Neither has any chance of fulfilling their mother’s American dream of success. Laura is a lame, pathologically shy stay-at-home; Tom has his father’s wandering ways and allergy to confinement. He’s long gone when the play begins, and what we see is what he can’t help remembering — “truth,” as he puts it, “in the pleasant guise of an illusion.”
As the familiar story proceeds — with Amanda needling Tom into bringing a gentleman caller home for dinner to meet the agoraphobic Laura — the actions and images assume shapes, both heightened and pared-down, that suggest how we edit and exaggerate when we remember. And how memory can sometimes not creep up, but leap up, on us, as when Laura first makes her entrance into Tom’s imagination. (I’ll let you experience that one firsthand.)
Years’ worth of domestic ritual — of meals cooked and tables laid and cleared — is summoned by a wordless ballet of gestures performed by Amanda and Laura. A repeated vision of Laura struggling to move a heavy typewriter is frozen in the amber of a brother’s pained guilt.
Tom himself is forever pacing, practically racing, falling onto furniture as if he meant to shatter it. When the family sits down to dinner, you never see the food. And Laura’s collection of little glass animals has been reduced to a single unicorn, which casts prismatic light from a low stool whenever she looks upon it. Memory has latched on to and enlarged the details that count.
I have a conflicted relationship with Brantley’s criticism in general (much more with Isherwood’s) but that last line really spoke to me: “Memory has latched on to and enlarged the details that count.” I saw that kind of resonance in Act III of Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern‘s recent production of Our Town in the choice to play Emily’s birthday scene like an old family movie with too-soft sound and too-quick motion that forced Emily only a sliver of the experience she wanted from that memory. I see it in the kind of aggregate and sparse approach we’re taking to the set, props and costumes in Vanya: using only those items of key significance, adhering to architectural detail without respecting bounds of walls and halls, and seeing through to the actor beneath the dress. In a very real sense, every production of a play that has been well-established in the repertoire of performance is done “in memory” of the past. Each community of artists latch on to the details “that count” in this time and place and rehearsals are the way in which we connect the now to the history of the work.