In her dressing room at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, Jessica Lange tilts back in an ancient, green, overstuffed rocking chair, laughs and says: "I think some people forget how young Amanda is." Amanda is Amanda Wingfield, mother of restless Tom and indrawn Laura, whom the actress is currently playing in Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie.
"I assume she is younger than I am now," says the fair-haired beauty who, hard to believe, is now 56. (Laurette Taylor was 61 when she lit up theatre history as the very first Amanda on Broadway in 1945.) "I see her [Amanda] as in her late forties. She was married just after World War I" — to the doughboy who one day would fall in love with long distances and skip out of town, for keeps — "when women got married younger than they do now. She has a 23-year-old daughter [Lange has a 24-year-old daughter and two other children], so if you figure Amanda was 25 when she had her daughter, she would only be 48 at the time of the play.
"Tennessee says of his mother that, for a minister's daughter, 'she did kick up her heels.' I made a deliberate decision," says the two-time Oscar winner (for "Tootsie" and "Blue Sky") as she tilts forward in the rocker to reach for a nail file, "not to play Amanda as some delusional relic of Southern gentility."
Before taking on this most magical, most haunting of American plays, Jessica Lange played Blanche DuBois of A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway, in London and for CBS Playhouse. And before that she played Maggie in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" on PBS in 1985. "My Tennessee Williams trilogy." Which would she say was the more troubled, Amanda Wingfield or Blanche DuBois?
"Oh, Blanche. She walks onstage on pins and needles, and it's all downhill from there. Amanda at least has a running start. Once again, actresses tend to play [Blanche] older. The first time I performed her I was 40, and I kept playing her up to when I was 45." Flicker of a smile. "And called it quits."
Jessica Lange was back in London doing Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night when producer Bill Kenwright asked her if she'd like to do The Glass Menagerie on Broadway and brought her together with director David Leveaux. At first she had reservations. "'Could it feel modern?' I wondered. I think what we wanted was to do this production not as a museum piece but to bring it into this present time."
On her dressing table there is a note she received from Anna Deavere Smith, who saw the show a day or two earlier. Its recipient lets this journalist copy one sentence from that note:
"Through your portrait, I could just as easily see her [Amanda Wingfield] as a black mother in a housing project in 2005."
Did anyone say museum piece?