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Sam Gold’s very risky production of Tennessee Williams’s autobiographical The Glass Menagerie challenges all easy assumptions about this play and it also challenges our more facile responses about what “works” when it comes to acting and staging. The house lights stay up for the first two or so minutes as Amanda Wingfield (Sally Field) and Laura (Madison Ferris) climb onto the stage, and it becomes apparent by degrees that Ferris has an actual physical disability. We watch in the glare of the lights as Ferris walks slowly on her hands and feet up the stairs while Field lugs an obviously very heavy wheelchair.

In these two or so minutes at the start of this The Glass Menagerie, which seem suspended in time, we are made to intimately understand what it was like for Laura at school when she had to make her way to her seat in front of everyone with her clumping leg brace. But that’s not all we might feel. We are both watcher and watched, somehow, and what we are watching cannot quite be defined. We see Ferris’s difficulty in getting places without her wheelchair, yes. But there is also great physical beauty in the triangular way she comports herself to get on that stage.

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There is very little set here for this “memory play,” just a table and a few props. Ferris doesn’t seem like an actress playing a role but like a real girl up there in the midst of imaginary or remembered circumstances—her shyness is her own, and it is a very blunt and modern sort of shyness. Similarly, Field does not do a Southern accent and she does not seem to be aiming for a representation of Amanda as written. This production runs two hours and five minutes with no intermission, maybe because Gold does not want to break the difficult spell he is trying to cast.

In the first scenes, Field’s voice seems a little strained, especially in the fights she has with her son Tom (Joe Mantello). Field is 70 years old and Mantello is 54, and so both of them are about two decades older than these roles are usually cast. Mantello, who is better known as a director, is a “more is more” type of actor and Gold has allowed him to go all out with tics and mannerisms. Yet there is a moment when Tom is trying to make up with Amanda where Mantello embraces Field and she luxuriates in his embrace, and at this point it becomes clear that this is a gesture Tom probably wouldn’t have made in the moment—but it is a gesture he wishes he could have made in retrospect. And that’s really killer.

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Most actresses have trouble with Amanda’s long “jonquil” monologue, but this speech is Field’s particular triumph. She unleashes her youthfully long hair and throws off her dark red robe to reveal a bright pink cotillion sort of dress, and this visual show-stopper is matched by Field’s commitment to the idea of Amanda’s love for the past and her disappointment in the present. There is something eternally girlish about Field that makes Amanda’s lot in life feel particularly unfair. Field had a moment where she was sitting in this pink dress off in a corner and looking sulky in a teenager-ish sort of way that is always going to stay in my memory.

As the Gentleman Caller, Finn Wittrock is almost too well cast, and he gives the only conventional performance here. Wittrock’s obliviously cruel Jim would fit into just about any other production of The Glass Menagerie, but somehow that isn’t what this particular production needs. (Was Gold trying to throw us a lifeline out of difficulty and alienating effects with this Gentleman Caller?) Once Wittrock exits, Field suddenly finds a frighteningly low basement of her speaking voice to yell at Tom with, and then the play winds up as it usually does with Tom speaking directly out to us. Mantello seems very aware of just how famous and careworn his lines are at the end of the play, and yet in the best sections of this very strange version of The Glass Menagerie it feels as if the voices of the Williams characters are somehow channeled from dead people who refuse to rest. This is bound to be a controversial production, and some of it doesn’t work, or “work.” But you are not likely to forget it.

Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St., Manhattan 

Photos by Julieta Cervantes