I recently had a conversation with someone who had seen one of the Broadway revivals of The Glass Menagerie. He couldn't remember who played Amanda, but vividly recalled Amanda Plummer as Laura. I found that rather shocking considering that this was the version with Jessica Tandy as Amanda who received all the revival's rave reviews.
Here's Frank Rich's12/3/1983 review:
THE new Broadway revival of ''The Glass Menagerie'' leaves much to be desired, but that fact doesn't diminish the largest aspect of the event. The spirits of Tennessee Williams and Jessica Tandy have been reunited for the first time in a generation, and their partnership, now as in legend, is one of the most fundamental in the history of the American theater. Perhaps some theatergoers will want to hold out for a better ''Glass Menagerie'' than the one at the O'Neill Theater, and no doubt it will eventually arrive. But you pass up Miss Tandy's Amanda Wingfield only at your own peril: You may turn around one day to discover that, in Mr. Williams's phrase, the past has turned into everlasting regret.
Along with ''Long Day's Journey Into Night,'' ''The Glass Menagerie'' is in a class apart among autobiographical American plays. ''The play is memory,'' says Tom, Mr. Williams's alter ego and narrator - and so it is. What lifts this work above so many other family living-room dramas is its author's insistence on refracting the past through a complex and vulnerable sensibility: A remembered reality is rearranged to express the music, both sweet and discordant, of a young poet's soul. It is Miss Tandy's ability to ascend to that same realm - to give us not just the simple truth, but ''truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion'' - that makes her performance a piece of music that lingers in our minds as persistently as Amanda lingered in the author's.
The simple truth of Amanda is plain enough. A woman who has long since been deserted by both her husband and her genteel Southern youth, she lives in shabby circumstances in Depression-era St. Louis; she fights incessantly for her children's happiness even as she nearly smothers them to death. But if that were the sum of Amanda, Mr. Williams wouldn't have written about her. Within the exasperating nag, there is still the coquettish plantation belle. Within the woman battered on all sides by the painfulness of existence, there is still the indomitable fighter who clings to her faith in ''the superior things of the mind and the spirit.''
Miss Tandy, trim and in blond curls, wraps all these Amandas together in a portrayal of prismatic translucence. One second she is hectoring her son for his selfishness in a raspy Southern drawl, then she is all maternal good will, quietly tightening a muffler around Tom's neck. A second after that, she is a calculating flirt, cajoling the young man into finding his sister, Laura, a gentleman caller. When Tom takes the bait, she skips buoyantly about her drab apartment, clapping her hands in childish delight.
As always with this actress, delicate precision is all. When Amanda tells her daughter to aspire to ''charm'' and then remembers that charm was also her husband's fatal attribute, the word descends from a cheery high note to a death rattle in the same sentence. When Amanda trudges home defeated by the discovery that Laura has abandoned business college, Miss Tandy enters in a moth-eaten cloth coat, looking aged and weary; then, by the mere dignity with which she removes her gloves, she reasserts the pride and determination of a woman who perseveres in the face of any defeat. Later on, while reminiscing about her marriage to her son, the actress clasps her arms to her chest on the line, ''There are so many things in my heart I cannot describe to you.'' Her eyes tell us those indescribable things, and one of them is the unmistakable red-hot fever of sexual passion.
Miss Tandy brings one other strong asset to this role - beauty. When she puts on her yellow-linen cotillion dress to greet Laura's gentleman caller, there is nothing campy or self- parodistic about the mother's retreat to her vanished past. Sashaying about the room with a bouquet of jonquils in her hand, the actress just turns back the clock as magically as she did in ''Foxfire.'' Yet when disappointment sets in afterward, the same woman in the same dress withers like a leaf: the glow is gone, and we're left with a ghost floating through the lurid red shadows cast by the Paradise dance hall next door.
Unlike so many Amandas, Miss Tandy doesn't refrain from making the audience despise her - and that's how it must be, if we're to believe that she will ultimately drive her son, like her husband, out the door forever. This Amanda is tough, and even her most comic badgerings leave a bitter aftertaste. John Dexter, the British director of this production, follows the same severe tack in the rest of the revival - even to the point of using some of the distancing, slide-projected title cards that Mr. Williams calls for in the published text (but are rarely seen in performance).
Though the notion of fighting against a maudlin ''Glass Menagerie'' is laudable, the execution has gone astray. The exemplary designer Ming Cho Lee has created a set that appropriately serves the abstraction of memory rather than kitchen-sink reality, but it is too big, too contemporary and too icy in its austere high- tech design. Even Andy Phillips's evocative, pointillist lighting can't always prevent it from combatting the play's intimacy.
The supporting cast, though populated by accomplished actors, is frequently playing at a routine level. Though she works hard, Amanda Plummer is miscast as Laura: as you'd expect, she captures the pathological shyness of a young woman who lives in a fantasy world of glass figurines, but a gleaming smile alone can't convey the inner radiance that is waiting to be unlocked; we just don't believe that she would haunt her brother for the rest of his life. Bruce Davison's Tom has a Williamsesque accent that comes (in the narration) and goes (in the scenes proper) - and the performance is in and out too. A cagey opponent for Miss Tandy in their fights, the actor gives an exaggeratedly actorish delineation of a dreamy poet battling for salvation.
John Heard comes off much better as the Gentleman Caller: He mines the low-key generosity of the man, thereby keeping total disaster at bay in his long scene with the almost resolutely ungiving Miss Plummer. But his flights of Dale Carnegie-style self- boosterism are accompanied by artificial and anachronistic gestures - as if he and Mr. Dexter were guessing blindly at the manners of a bygone American prototype.
That the play is often absorbing and affecting, if imbalanced, in spite of these considerable drawbacks is a testament to the enduring pull of the writing and to the flame of Miss Tandy. The wrong notes are there to be heard, but so is the voice of our cherished, departed poet, pouring directly out of one of the few incandescent theater artists he has left behind.
“Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.” - Voltaire