To most people, the word “poetry” means something not of this world — fanciful, verbally elaborate, too ornate or delicate to thrive in our everyday reality. But an alternative notion of poetry — one that many poets and poetry lovers prefer — holds that a poem derives its power from the force of its simplicity, with words and details drawn from the hard specifics of ordinary life. One concept frees poetry from reality; the other affirms its place there. The two are less alternatives than the elements of a dialectic: most poets traffic in both; the greatest have managed to fuse the two into a paradoxical unity.
Tennessee Williams, who relished both kinds of poetry, often strove to draw a sharp line between them. For him, reality was sordid and cruel — it needed to be covered with the escapism of pure fancy, like the naked light bulb that Blanche DuBois covers with a paper lantern in A Streetcar Named Desire. The confrontation between the two concepts — the moment when Mitch rips the lantern off the bulb to get a good look at Blanche — is the central battle in Williams’s dramatic vision. In The Glass Menagerie (1944), he puts a double spin on it: Tom’s failure to pay the light bill — because he has secretly used the money to pay his union dues in the Merchant Marine — enables Laura and her Gentleman Caller to unburden themselves to each other by candlelight. Sordid reality and its tragic deceits pave the way for a momentary, quasi-romantic escape.
Some are complaining that Sam Gold’s new production of The Glass Menagerie, at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre, has somehow robbed Williams’s most familiar play of its poetry. Maybe that’s true if you equate poetry exclusively with the magical and moonlit side of life. But for me, and apparently many others, The Glass Menagerie‘s poetic strength lies in its realistic harshness and pain — the poetry of Amanda’s relentless “Rise and shine!” every morning, and of Tom’s equally relentless lies about going to the movies every night. The fantasies he embroiders on these untruths to amuse Laura may be dressed up to look like poetry, but they charm her, and us, because we know they’re fake. Despite Tom’s claim that “the play is memory” and therefore “sentimental,” these memories hurt him, and through him, us. The play’s poetry lies in its harsh, tormenting facts. Odd that so many theatergoers have come to regard it as some sort of delicate daydream.
Gold’s production, stark and stripped nearly bare of decor, sets the hard-fact tone from the start, as the actors come onstage from the auditorium, with house lights still up. When Joe Mantello’s Tom tells you he has things up his sleeve, you know it’s a fib: He’s wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt. Gold makes the challenge of squeezing poetry from this cold-eyed context one degree harder on himself by casting as Laura Madison Ferris, a young actress with muscular dystrophy. No gentleman caller could pretend that this Laura’s leg impairment was barely noticeable: She gets about in a wheelchair, out of which she has to be helped.
The casting is one of Gold’s two questionable choices — not because of any artistic limitations on Ferris’s part, but because her situation in effect rewrites Williams’s conception of Laura. That she and Gold have worked out an interpretation of the role that also seems to conflict with the text — a staunch, stubbornly sullen Laura in place of the script’s tremulous neurasthenic — throws the drama’s balance off kilter, and also seems to give Finn Wittrock’s Gentleman Caller an extra shot of overstated jitters. Gold’s other distracting directorial choice is an elaborate rain effect, splashing the stage and dampening Laura’s dress — an intrusive directorial metaphor in a production otherwise valuable precisely because it eschews fancy-dress metaphors.
Gold has also been assailed — unfairly, I think — for allowing costume designer Wojciech Dziedzic to put Sally Field’s Amanda in the garish pink cotillion gown of the dinner scene. But this glaringly “wrong” choice fits perfectly among the excessive, delusion-building choices Amanda makes in preparing for the Gentleman Caller’s arrival. It underlines a neglected aspect of the work: Amanda, too often oversimplified into a monomaniac nonstop talker trying to push her children toward success, is as much a divided soul as her offspring. The dinner party becomes her imagined reward for years of desperate drudging. Field’s Amanda, curt, careworn, and heartsick at her youngsters’ failings, lights up in these later scenes with an eerie inner electricity; the arc of her transformation is this flawed but fascinating production’s sturdy spine.
Electricity is the essence, too, of The Light Years by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, directed by Oliver Butler, at Playwrights Horizons. But these three founders of the Debate Society theater collective have, unlike Gold, put their faith in elaborate effects, both visual and dramaturgic, rather than in the inner light that sustains characters through a narrative. Jumping off from an obscure footnote to American theater history — the actor-impresario Steele MacKaye’s failed attempt to build a giant “Spectatorium” for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago — Bos and Thureen tell two criss-crossing stories. The first narrates the tragedy of MacKaye’s devoted chief electrician (Erik Lochtefeld) and his impulsive young wife (Aya Cash). The second, set in their former apartment forty years later, during the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition, deals with an aspiring composer of ad jingles (Ken Barnett), his ultra-patient wife (Cash again), and their gifted son (Graydon Peter Yosowitz).
Framed in voice-over narration by MacKaye (an amusingly ornate Rocco Sisto), the two intercut stories seem to fade in and out, rather than gaining momentum or strength from each other. Laden with explanations of historical tidbits that are hard to care about, both stories also contain glitchy, arbitrary turns that keep distancing the characters from us. Likewise, neither seems particularly connected to MacKaye’s foolhardy, grandiose scheme for a gigantic sound-and-light pageant celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage. Full of visual beauty, intelligent writing and fine acting — add two extra cheers for Barnett’s and Yosowitz’s excellent piano playing — The Light Years nonetheless seems to orbit farther away from our grasp with each new scene.
The Glass Menagerie
111 West 44th Street
Through July 2
The Light Years
416 West 42nd Street
Through April 2