The Glass Menagerie is an American classic, a work that routinely rates as one of the greatest American plays of the the twentieth century, that set the tone for much of American drama as we know it and is produced in regular rotation around the country. This esteem makes reviving the 1944 drama an immense challenge, one that requires the theatre artists involved to respect the history of the work while having something new to say with it. And this challenge applies not just to the actors and the director but to the designers as well, who must find a way to put their unique stamp on a work whose look may be as iconic as its dialogue.
"The man is a poet of the stage," admitted Irish set designer Bob Crowley (Once, Mary Poppins, The Coast of Utopia), who was tasked with the challenge of finding a balance between the historical significance of The Glass Menagerie and its contemporary appeal when helping to revive the show for its new Broadway incarnation, which began previews at the Booth Theatre Sept. 5. "Tennessee Williams is like your Shakespeare — you quote him like we quote Shakespeare — and so to take a very overtly familiar script and try and find a new way of looking at it, that was the idea."
In the script for The Glass Menagerie — Williams' semi-autobiographical play about overbearing mother Amanda Wingfield and her attempts to find a suitor for her fragile daughter, Laura — the emerging playwright included a full page of set descriptions detailing exactly what he believed the Wingfield apartment should look like. Williams described every inch of the set, from its "poetic" fire escape just outside the window, to the second proscenium he insists upon to define the dining room, to the way the light reveals different rooms in the apartment.
These descriptions are much more than the overreaching directions of a young playwright. They have become theatre touchstones; tools used to teach generations of drama students how to look at twentieth-century drama. Given their influence, do set designers owe a sense of authenticity and accuracy to their audiences when reviving the play?
"Attempting to faithfully recreate an original production surely has its place, but I would consider that less the spirit of a revival and more that of a museum piece," said Andrew Lieberman, associate arts professor and head of scenic design for NYU's Tisch School of the Arts' Design for Stage and Film program. "I believe revivals should feel every bit as much of the current moment as new plays. The designer and director must interpret the given stage directions, distilling their essential meaning from any record of the original production or design vocabulary of their time. Detailed and elaborate stage directions, often found in Tennessee Williams' plays, make this more challenging but not any less important."
|Photo by Michael J. Lutch|
Lieberman's colleague at NYU, set designer Christine Jones, agreed. "I personally believe that the emotional undercurrents that are drawing the director and designer into the characters and the world are more important compasses to use than the set instructions," the American Idiot and Spring Awakening designer explained. "One must trust that the theatre artists working on the play are being loyal to the play itself on some level, even if that is a very personal level."
For the upcoming revival of Menagerie, Crowley reunited with his Tony Award-winning collaborator on Once, director John Tiffany, and the pair set out to mount the iconic memory play with an urgent look and feel. Instead of taking Williams' directions literally, Crowley and Tiffany decided to approach them a bit more abstractly.
"At its best, stage design works metaphorically," Crowley said. "But we wanted to find a different kind of metaphor and we talked about a lot of them — installation art and stuff like that — and then we decided: What if [the family] were completely isolated — completely at sea — in time? I was trying to find something tangible about looking back and memory."
Crowley and Tiffany hit upon the idea of water on a train ride from New York City to the American Repertory Theater outside of Boston, where the production first premiered Feb. 2013. They envisioned the Wingfield home floating inside black pools of memory, isolating the characters from the outside world. "When [the audience] walks in you just see these floating platforms and you see that they are sort of lost in time," he said. "It's a family who are completely disconnected from the real world." In fact, the final design is so physically isolating that the actors can only enter the stage via trap doors below the floor.
Crowley's design won raves when it debuted at ART and the production, which stars Zachary Quinto, Cherry Jones and Celia Keenan-Bolger, is one of the upcoming Broadway season's most anticipated plays. "I was 15 years of age when I read it first and I remember the stage instructions from that time. And in a funny kind of way those stage instructions and Tennessee Williams influenced me. He's describing a kind of non-naturalistic theatre which I have more or less adhered to all my life," recalled Crowley, who is currently at work on the set design for Disney's Aladdin, due on Broadway in 2014.
"[Tiffany and I] are both obsessed with Tennessee Williams. But we also both feel [The Glass Menagerie] was [by] a young playwright who was experimenting with form and excited about the idea of making theatre modern. But that was a time which has now passed. Things have all changed and we wanted to apply what we get excited about today to his wonderful play."