By: Brian Scott Lipton
The role of Southern matriarch Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” is considered one of the most coveted parts for actresses. First created by the legendary Laurette Taylor in the show’s 1945 Broadway premiere, Amanda has since been portrayed – on stage and screen – by such formidable ladies as Katharine Hepburn, Maureen Stapleton, Joanne Woodward, Julie Harris, Jessica Tandy, and Jessica Lange.
The Great White Way’s latest interpreter of this iconic character is two-time Tony Award winner Cherry Jones, who is starring in John Tiffany’s new production of the play – opposite Zachary Quinto, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and Brian J. Smith – at the Booth Theatre. And if this singular star seems like perfect casting, she’s the first to admit her initial impression of Amanda was less than favorable.
“I think I found a copy of it that belonged to my mother,” says Jones. “But when I started reading it, I was a Southerner with a chip on my shoulder, who had come to New York from Paris, Tennessee, and I thought Amanda was one of those characters who made Southern women look freakish. I didn’t buy it. I lacked the depth and life experience at the time to understand her, because I couldn’t appreciate this woman’s dilemma.”
Today, the 56-year-old actress has a very different take on Amanda, a single woman trying to talk sense into her feckless adult son, Tom, and his younger, physically challenged sister, Laura. In fact, she’s come to appreciate her alter ego in ways she once never thought possible. “I don’t know how she raised those children alone,” says Jones. “She’s this Mississippi woman who finds herself abandoned with these two young children in the 1920s and then the Great Depression hits. How did she shelter them? How did she clothe them? The fact that she kept those children fed all those years shows what moxie she had.”
Moreover, while Jones is unmarried and has no children of her own, she fully embraces Amanda’s devotion to her daughter. “She is absolutely desperate to help her,” says Jones. “Like so many people do today, Amanda has a child who is incapable of surviving on her own. Once Amanda is gone, she thinks, ‘how will this child survive without her? Will she be thrown into some horrible state institution?’ And the clock is ticking. Tom is about to be out the door; this hapless so-called poet is about to leave his family. So the play begins at this heightened place because [finding a suitor for Laura] is life or death for that child.”
While skeptics may wonder if New York needs yet another production of the play (which was most recently revived by the Roundabout Theatre Company in 2010 with Judith Ivey as Amanda), Jones points to this production’s success at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts earlier this year. “Even for a child it’s totally captivating, because of the visual elements,” she notes of Tiffany’s unusual take on the play. “We’ve done it for many high school students who loved it. And we even gave a talk, one day, for this group of elderly men who were having a great deal of trouble coming out as gay, even in their 80s. So we spanned quite an age range up there.”
Most of all, Jones believes strongly that, regardless of her performance, this “Menagerie” stands up to any of its predecessors. “The beauty of this production, as devastating as it is, is that the artistry is so great that you will truly be transported by it and uplifted. And that is not hyperbole,” she says. “I want everyone who loves theater to see it. But even more, I want every person who doesn’t like theater to see it, because it will affect all people.”