It is to Sally Field's enormous credit that Amanda Wingfield does not plow through the Kennedy Center's exquisite revival of "The Glass Menagerie" like a runaway bulldozer. Field's idea of overbearing Amanda is subtler than that: She's a woman of southern refinement worn down by poverty and worry. And she's oblivious to the impact her obsession with her reclusive daughter, Laura, is having on her son, Tom, who is suffocating in the cage of anxiety Amanda makes of their shabby St. Louis apartment.
Jennifer Dundas and Jason Butler Harner, as Laura and Tom, are marvelous foils for Field's Amanda, pushing back when Amanda's will of granite threatens to crush them, yielding when the mother herself appears ready to crumble. You have only to read the look of fear mixed with compassion on Dundas's face each time Amanda weakens, when her disappointment verges on despair, to understand how mightily the Wingfields fight to stave off despondency. And it's just as clear, in Harner's hair-trigger cynicism, how close to the flame they hover.
The production, directed by Gregory Mosher with a captivating intuition for the play's unerring emotional truth, is all about the zone of protection we attempt to draw around the people we love, and how easy it is forever after to be trapped between the impulses of self-sacrifice and self-preservation. Harner illustrates the seesaw battle of the heart in the wrenching moment when he rushes to Laura's rescue at Amanda's dinner for the Gentleman Caller. On a dime, his contempt turns to touching gallantry as he sweeps his crippled sister into his arms like a crumpled doll.
It took a spring and summer's worth of "Tennessee Williams Explored" for the Kennedy Center to muster a complete acting ensemble so attuned to the playwright. This "Glass Menagerie," the last leg of the institution's journey with Williams, leaves you teary and grieving for Tom's pain and Laura's heartache and Amanda's cluelessness. The cast works in perfect harmony -- Corey Brill is superb, too, as the blunt yet endearing Gentleman Caller -- and the balance allows every performance to stand glowingly on its own.
Mosher can't resist a little fancy-schmancy technical embroidery. During the interludes in which Tom serves as narrator, a picture on the living room wall becomes a screen, which shows images of the people and places Tom describes. It's far more literal than what is required. And while John Lee Beatty's accomplished scenic design offers the audience a glimpse of the harsh drabness of the Wingfields' reality, Aaron Copp's lighting is at times intrusive. The lights fade at distracting moments to a soupy dusk. Though intended to evoke the illusions of the past, it merely makes things hard to see.
A little electronic showmanship might have been more palatable had the performances been less satisfying, particularly in the first act, when it takes some time for the rhythms of the play to be established. Here, however, the cast needs no help in setting the beat. The semi-autobiographical "Glass Menagerie" was Williams's first breakout success, and though his subsequent "A Streetcar Named Desire" was the play that demonstrated the scope of his ambition and his genius, this production reaffirms "Menagerie" as his most moving and skillful play, one of the signal family dramas of the American theater.
The question about Field was not whether she would carve an interesting path to Amanda -- when has this soulful actress phoned in anything? -- but whether she could make it interesting on a stage. Movie actors often mistake a spotlight for a camera and are capable only of moments in miniature on a stage; the characters they create are often about as indelible as disappearing ink.
Field, in fact, starts small. This Amanda is no drama queen, reenacting for the captive audience in her dingy apartment the tragic story of her life as an eye-batting deb, who on one triumphant day received 17 gentlemen callers. No, Field makes of the character a real mother -- Amanda's maternal instinct has never seemed more fully developed -- who is in mourning not only for her own life, but also for her daughter's. "Will you? Will you? Will you? Will you?" she pleads of Tom, seeking his assistance in bringing a young man home to meet Laura. He flees the flat and she follows, falling to the floor outside their door, her voice pursuing him down the stairwell. She wins, but at the cost of energy and dignity.
She's physically tiny, too, which adds to a sense of vulnerability; Dundas's Laura is tinier still, a delicate woman who remains a shy little girl. When Amanda asks why she couldn't have children who are normal, the question is not revealing as much about her selfishness as her confusion: How is it that her life has burned down to these last few embers of hope? And why does everyone, from her husband to the acquaintances she tries to rope into magazine subscriptions on the telephone, run from her like the plague?
Harner's intelligent, easily provoked Tom is both funny and perceptive. We don't know all the reasons that Amanda disgusts him so, but there's something ineffably authentic in his performance. It communicates the allergic reaction some children develop for a parent who's too much of anything: nice, needy, nasty, nosy. Dundas is Harner's polar opposite. Her timid, porcelain Laura is a walking invitation to smothering. The fascinating chemistry Dundas adds has to do with Laura's need to parent Amanda, to help her mother sustain her illusions just enough to keep the household going.
The web of dependency is expressed even in the wardrobe. For Laura's coming out, as it were, the dinner Amanda arranges for her and the Gentleman Caller, Jane Greenwood designs a gorgeous pink gown that smacks of desperation. It's intended for a ball, not a meal in a dreary apartment. Amanda gets gussied up, too, and her dress, dragged from her trunk, is a frilly bit of satire -- in it Field looks like a wilted tea cozy. But it's a measure of Amanda's (and Field's) generosity that the dress does not try to steal the limelight.
"The Glass Menagerie" builds magnificently to the tender scene between Laura and the Gentleman Caller; Dundas and Brill play it gracefully. For once, you believe it when he tells her she's pretty -- there's even a real whiff of passion. It's so well played that the Gentleman Caller's hope-crushing knockout punch lands with an obliterating force.
In the play's final movement, as Amanda absorbs the humiliation of this latest rejection and casts about, characteristically, for scapegoats, Field seems to shrivel before our eyes. The women collapse together in a little bundle, sadness piled on sadness. It's as if they're being whittled away, sliver by poignant sliver.
The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Gregory Mosher. Set, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Aaron Copp; sound, John Gromada; hair and wigs, Tom Watson. Approximately 2 hours 30 minutes. Through Aug. 8 at Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.