Sally Field has never shied away from a fight in her long and varied career. She brought a combination of tensile strength and vulnerability to her two Oscar-winning roles: as the union organizer in Norma Rae and as the staunch widow fighting to save a cotton farm in the Depression-era South in Places in the Heart. Now Field is back in the 1930s, on the front lines of a new war of survival — this time as the indomitable matriarch in the new Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. The battles — giving heart to her disabled daughter, Laura, and absorbing the blows from rebellious son Tom — are tempered with a ferocious love for her children.
“Sally is so much fiercer, stronger, scarier, more intimidating and oppressive than you would expect,” says director Sam Gold, referring to the actress’s take on Amanda as a force of nature in her desperate attempt to find a husband for Laura and in how she hectors Tom to rescue them from their threadbare tenement existence. The production costars Joe Mantello as Tom, Madison Ferris as Laura, and Finn Wittrock as the Gentleman Caller. “Her Amanda wants so much for her kids, loves them so deeply, and Sally brings the fighter to the character.”
Field, who played Amanda in an acclaimed but brief 2004 Kennedy Center revival, says she never thought she’d have another chance to further explore this quintessential American character, much less on Broadway. But Scott Rudin, one of the producers of The Goat, in which she made her Broadway debut in 2002, gave her the opportunity to realize what may well be a career capstone. The actress is feeling exhilarated as well as intimidated.
“This play is really so glorious, and with so many wonderful pieces, that I feel I just have to put my head down and plow through because I don’t want to be the missing link!” she says during a break in rehearsals. The actress adds that the play’s enduring appeal lies in its layered complications, enticing each generation of actors and directors to bring a fresh perspective.
Since 1945, when the play announced the arrival of a dramatist who would radically change the face of theater, productions have tended to emphasize the portrait of a young artist longing for adventure in the world outside his claustrophobic St. Louis tenement. Tom, after all, is a thinly veiled doppelgänger for Williams himself, with Amanda a stand-in for his mother, Edwina, and Laura for Rose, his deeply troubled sister.
Gold, a recent Tony winner for Fun Home and a director who has brought bold reinterpretations to classics such as Look Back in Anger and The Real Thing, sees Tom’s rebellion in a new light. It is inspired by what he cites as the often-overlooked context in which Williams has placed the play: 1938, the time of the Spanish Civil War as a prelude to “the world … waiting for bombardments.”
“It’s not the first thing people think about about The Glass Menagerie,” says Gold, “but it’s a young man looking back at a moment when fascism started taking hold in Europe.”
While Gold sees the parallel between Tom escaping Amanda and the tyranny of fascism — the “bombardments” take place at home — he says the production has also been influenced by the fact that he is now the father of two young girls with his wife, the playwright Amy Herzog.
“Now that I’m a father, I see the play from Amanda’s point of view,” says Gold. “She wants to make the world better for them than it has been for her, a single mom whose husband has left her facing an uncertain future.”
Field’s three sons are grown-up, but she too says that her performance is molded in part by maternal concerns. “Your children push you in every direction, in ways that are not easy to go, and you struggle to raise them in the best way you know how,” she says. “As an actor, how could you not call on that? It’s incredibly difficult, but this is what women have done all their lives: struggled to raise children, earn a living, find a place in a world run by men.”
In the love-hate relationship between Amanda and Tom, says Field, the glue is Laura, the part with which Ferris will be making her Broadway debut. Tom’s abandonment of his sister, which mirrors Williams’ lifelong shame over not being able to help Rose, suffuses the play in guilt.
Gold says that he wanted the memory of that betrayal to be “painful and brutal,” and that has led to an unusual choice in casting Mantello in the role of Tom. The director says that a man in his thirties looking back on his 25-year-old self is one thing, but someone older, looking back over a couple of decades, raises the stakes. “It must have been pretty disturbing for him to have been tortured for all those years,” says Gold.
Better known as a Tony-winning director (Take Me Out, Assassins), Mantello’s stage appearances have been rare, the exception being the recent revival of The Normal Heart, in which he played a gay activist and stand-in for the playwright Larry Kramer.
Gold saw him in the revival and immediately thought of him for Tom. “His performance was burned in my brain,” says the director. “I think he’s a brilliant actor and a great Tennessee Williams surrogate.”
Both Field and Gold find it ironic that as much as Williams, like Tom, spent his entire life trying to escape his mother, he ultimately ended up coming full circle in a way. Although the playwright left explicit instructions that he was to be buried at sea after his death, his brother, Dakin Williams, saw to it that his body was returned to St. Louis and buried next to his mother.
“There is an incredible bond between Tom and Amanda,” says Field, adding that you can’t escape bloodlines any more than you can escape life or death. “But out of all that, [Williams] was able to create this extraordinary and beautiful work of art.”