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The current production of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams at the American Repertory Theater (ART) marks an historic return of actress Cherry Jones, one of the company’s founding members, to its stage. The Emmy and Tony Award-winning actress has appeared in many ART shows over the years, and in Glass Menagerie creates the role of Amanda Wingfield, the overbearing matriarch of the family drama. The transparently autobiographical work, which Williams called a “memory play” in the script, is the playwright’s first to be produced by the ART. The new production received a glowing review in The New York Times by Ben Brantley, who described it as “such a thorough rejuvenation Tennessee Williams’s 1944 drama that I hesitate to call it a revival,” noting that the staging “gives visual life to the forms and rhythms of reminiscence in ways that you’ve surely never seen before but that feel uncompromisingly right.”

Recruiting Jones, a major stage actress, to play Amanda was no walk in the park. As a Boston Globe story reported, director John Tiffany, RI ’11, first broached the idea to the actress a couple of years ago over a lunch at Veggie Planet in Harvard Square, when he heard Amanda’s voice in the Tennessee native’s Southern accent. “No, never, not that play,” was Jones’s immediate response. She later elaborated: “I knew that world too well, and it depressed me.”

Yet Tiffany, a British theater director, did not give up, and eventually persuaded Jones to sign on after a reading.  In January, the director called Williams’s 1944 drama his favorite play when he and artistic director and professor of the practice of theatre Diane Paulus spoke at a Radcliffe Institute event about the production, then in rehearsal. Tiffany had previously developed the musical Once at ART, during his institute fellowship in 2011; that show won eight 2012 Tony Awards on Broadway, including Best Director for Tiffany. When Paulus invited him to direct again, he proposed the Williams play. (Based on reported commercial interest in The Glass Menagerie, a Broadway production of that, too, may be in the works.)

Choreographer Stephen Hoggett and set designer Bob Crowley, who collaborated with Tiffany on Once, reunite with him for Glass Menagerie. The cast of four, including Zachary Quinto as Tom, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura, and Brian J. Smith as the Gentleman Caller, works fluidly together to render the emotionally fraught drama. As Amanda, Jones domineers, scolding and pushing her restless son, Tom (a surrogate for the playwright, whose given name was Tom), and both protecting and urging on her daughter, Laura. Amanda flails fiercely but ineffectively at their fate, clinging to the goal of finding a husband for the beautiful but painfully shy Laura as the family’s salvation. Tom loves his mother (the father departed long ago, for reasons Amanda’s personality makes understandable) and sister, but rankles in his role as sole support of the family and at his job in a shoe warehouse. The vulnerable, slightly lame Laura has a light burning inside her, but she is a creature too fragile for this world, and has retreated from it to her collection of glass animals. When some previously festive candles are extinguished at the play’s end, the moment has a heartrending symbolism.

For more information on Tennessee Williams and Harvard, read “Blessed Unexpectedly” from the January-February 2013 issue.