The Look of a Classic: How Tony-Winning Designer Bob Crowley Re-envisioned the Set for The Glass Menagerie

By Benjamin Solomon
08 Sep 2013

Cherry Jones and Celia Keenan-Bolger
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."