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The shattering freedom of “Glass”

The cast and friends celebrate director John Tiffany at Upstairs on the Square. PHOTO: Gretchen Helene

Upstairs on the Square: about 11:15 p.m.—opening night. A room full of hors d’oeuvres and gin martinis and a profound sense of catharsis—of survival, even.

The din of the crowd lively and incessant and then, at a moment, extinguished. The clanging of metal on glass signaled speech, and atop a small table to one side of the room rose, first, Diane Paulus, the Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theater, and next, John Tiffany, director of the A.R.T. production of Tennessee WilliamsThe Glass Menagerie, in honor of which we were all gathered.

It would feel almost improper to report—let alone remember—the contents of their speeches: these were talks drenched in the immediacy of a moment. But words stick out—“earthy,” “incomparable” (this one referring to the brilliant cast), “theatrical” and, perhaps most of all, “essential.”

The Glass Menagerie, which opened on February 6 and runs through March 17 at the A.R.T. Loeb Mainstage, is all of those things. It is, beyond the facts of the gripping family drama it tells, truly an exercise in the power of theater as a storytelling medium.

Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura.

“The production that we’ve made,” said Celia Keenan-Bolger, who plays the role of Laura Wingfield, “is inherently theatrical. What we’re doing is made for the theater.”

Alongside Keenan-Bolger, in the aforementioned “incomparable” cast, appear Cherry Jones as her mother, the aging southern belle, Amanda; Zachary Quinto as Tom, Laura’s wayward poet brother and the show’s narrator; and Brian J. Smith as the mysterious and tragic Gentleman Caller whose second-act visit sends the Wingfields into disarray.

In Tom’s opening monologue, he notes that “being a memory play… it is not realistic.” This production embraces the departure from realism wholeheartedly, a conscious decision that Keenan-Bolger said “gave us the freedom to not feel like we need to make the Glass Menagerie that everyone expects.”

The set, which was the topic of a recent New York Times article, is a fanciful home crafted of three hexagonal platforms of varying sizes apparently floating in a sea of black water—what the team referred to as the “liquid abyss”—that “immediately teaches the audience how to watch the play. We all tried to ground our performances in something as emotionally truthful as possible and let the play and the design do the rest,” Keenan-Bolger added.

The combination of emotional truth and visual surrealism begs audience members to consciously acknowledge they are sitting in a theater and being moved to tears. It is “truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion” as Tom says at the top of the show. And the audience is an integral part of both truth and illusion here: The experience is “a living, breathing organism that happens every single night and is different every single night,” said Keenan-Bolger.

The opening night after-party at Upstairs on the Square felt cathartic. Let me explain: This was a catharsis not from the process—it wasn’t relief that the show went off smoothly—but rather catharsis from the actual experience of the show itself. What I mean is that this feeling that engulfed the room wasn’t just an opening-night feeling; it was an every-day feeling—it was a “this show” feeling, a “just saw good theater” feeling.

From the plastic theater of Tennessee Williams to the plastic martini glasses, from the “liquid abyss” of memory and time to, perhaps, the martinis themselves, this was a party made possible—made necessary—by a brand of theater so theatrical that the walls of the Loeb could hardly contain it.

Keenan-Bolger, when John Tiffany first explained to her how Laura would enter at the show’s start (I won’t spoil it), asked him bewilderedly: “With magic?!?”

Yes.

It was that same magic that everyone felt at Upstairs on the Square that night, and it’s a magic you can only truly experience in a theater.

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