Beyond Shakespeare, there aren't many playwrights more familiar to American theatergoers than Tennessee Williams.
At the Guthrie Theater alone, The Glass Menagerie is now in its fifth production. At its climax on Sunday night, though, there were audible gasps and cheers from members of the audience who were seeing it with fresh eyes: responding not to a 75-year-old classic but to the young playwright who wrote it, reflecting on a time when he and his sister were younger still.
It's a moment when director Joseph Haj's vision for the play snaps into focus, when the nostalgic haze lifts and you understand how Haj took a story that's often plumbed for bitter, cynical disappointment and opened it up, revealing a vast well of love and hope.
That opening up begins with the physical space. The Glass Menagerie takes place in a small apartment, but on the Wurtele Thrust Stage, the apartment furnishings seem to float free of time and space, emphasizing the story's setting in the memory of narrator Tom (Remy Auberjonois). Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams' set, which suspends the action between two asymmetrical hexagons as though it's in a giant transporter, might be particularly appreciated by Star Trek fans who know Auberjonois's father René as a member of the Deep Space Nine cast.
If that's a nerdy observation to make, it's only fitting with respect to a production that elevates the shy Laura as a fandom icon who's been hiding in front of our eyes. Whatever audiences in the '40s made of Laura's fascination with one-horned horses, her peers in the '10s will ache with the lost promise of what she might have contributed to The Last Unicorn fanfic.
Carey Cox, who has understudied the role on Broadway, creates a deeply sympathetic and surprisingly relatatable Laura. Haj seems to have encouraged Cox to do with Laura something akin to what Kate Eastman did with her teenage Capulet in Haj's Romeo and Juliet (2017): She takes a character often portrayed as a tragic victim and shows that whatever fate had in store, this young woman also had her own plans.
Though Tom is also a young character, Haj follows in a long tradition of casting the role significantly older. With the metatheatrical framing device of Tom both narrating and acting in the play, a middle-aged actor like Auberjonois highlights the story's status as a memory being conjured before our eyes.
While Haj doesn't shy from the play's darker moments, all in all this is the warmest Menagerie you're likely to see. Jennifer Van Dyck portrays Amanda, single mother of Laura and Tom, as a woman trying to use her sharp wit to hold her family together, even if it sometimes has the opposite effect.
When Amanda and Tom exit, time seems to stand still for a literally and figuratively luminous scene shared between Cox and, as the play's "gentleman caller," Grayson DeJesus. Playing a character who can come off as shallow and callous, DeJesus finds a man who's genuinely smitten with Laura, who truly wishes the best for her. That results in a moment of pure theater magic, making this a Glass Menagerie you won't want to miss — whether it's your first or your fifth.