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The Glass Menagerie: Broadway Theatre Archive

A "memory play" bittersweet with the scent of wilting magnolias, The Glass Menagerie was Tennessee Williams' first Broadway success. It announced his arrival in 1945, and the theater world sat up and noticed a young playwright who soon thereafter delivered A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Williams' most popular play, this haunted, poignant drama has been adapted for film several times. Paul Newman directed John Malkovich, Joanne Woodward, and Karen Allen in a 1987 big-screen feature that's worth your time. So is this version, produced with appreciated modesty for television in 1973.

In her TV debut, Katherine Hepburn plays Amanda Wingfield, the stifling, child-warping mother adrift in gauzy memories of Southern belles and cotillions and "gentlemen callers," all the long-gone pieces of a life that's as faded and chipped as the china cups in her Depression-era St. Louis tenement. Ruled by Amanda, whom Williams in his notes described as a woman of "endurance and a kind of heroism," the Wingfield home is wallpapered with old jazz and disappointments. Sharing their own wounded, cramped lives there are her two grown children: Tom (Sam Waterson), the "selfish dreamer" and poet/warehouse worker — and the play's wistful narrator — and his timid spinster sister Laura (Joanna Miles). Pretty but crippled both inside and out, Laura is as breakable as the tiny glass figurines that populate her private world. All three are "lost souls" wishing on the moon for happiness "and just a little bit of good fortune."

That fortune appears to arrive when Tom, desperate for escape into a world "lit by lightning" yet anchored to the sister he loves, invites a coworker (Michael Moriarty) over for dinner to meet Laura. The big scene between debilitatingly shy Laura and this upbeat gentlemen caller is one of the great slices of 20th-century American theater. Here it's lovely and wrenching, spotlighting doomed romantic hopes without overplaying the post-Freudian symbolism that has encrusted the scene over the years.

Tennessee Williams meticulously crafted these four individuals with dimension and compassion, but there's no hope for these broken people who are incapable of moving forward in their threadbare world trapped between hopefulness and delusion. Yes, it's sad. It's also beautiful.

Hepburn shines in a role that seems crafted specially for her high-strung eccentricities and noble patrician gauntness. (Producer David Susskind called this casting coup "the longest wooing for a part in a lifetime of dealing with stars.") Fortunately the production avoids being just a show-offy "legitimate theatre" vehicle for its marquee star. It was Moriarty and Miles who took home two Emmys each — one each for Best Supporting Actor/Actress in a Drama, plus Best Supporting Actor/Actress of the year. Waterson and Hepburn were also nominated.

It's directed with grace and generous long takes by Anthony Harvey (The Lion in Winter), who only slightly "opens up" the play. The fine original musical score is by John Barry. When originally broadcast on December 16, 1973, The Glass Menagerie had only one commercial break, courtesy of sponsor IBM.

*          *          *

This Broadway Theatre Archive DVD delivers a vintage broadcast-quality image that has held up well. The 2.0 monaural audio is good enough, though it becomes tinny when voices are raised to fever pitch. Extras are a video photo slide-show (1:24) of original press publicity materials, and almost an hour's worth of previews for thirteen other BTA titles. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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