Zachary Quinto Enters the Fragile World of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie

By Harry Haun
September 1, 2013

In his Broadway debut, Zachary Quinto finds Tennessee Williams hiding inside The Glass Menagerie's Tom Wingfield.



Zachary Quinto has pretty much cornered the market on Portraits of an Icon as a Young Man. Most notably there was Spock: The Early Years, in the "Star Trek" films, and now, arriving Sept. 26 at the Booth Theatre, is the Tennessee Williams classic, The Glass Menagerie—it's Tennessee: The Early Years.

In Menagerie he answers to the name of Tom Wingfield, but it's a thin veil at best, hiding a poetic dreamer who is the family bread-winner, toiling meaninglessly in a warehouse to bring home the bacon for his mama, Amanda (Cherry Jones), and his crippled sister Laura (Celia Keenan-Bolger). On one melancholy occasion, after much Amanda-badgering, he brings home a gentleman caller (Brian J. Smith) for his painfully shy sister to try on for size. The memory of that night is the cross he bears.

"To play Tom—which is the clearest distillation of Tennessee Williams himself—at this time in my life is perfect," declares Quinto. "I'm just a little older than he was when he wrote the play, so I'm in very close relationship to a lot of the themes and issues he was struggling with that led him to this play. To me, that's a great gift as an actor—to enter into a role and an experience with that kind of foundation."

There's no shortage of info on the playwright—Young Tennessee, Old Tennessee, by Tennessee, about Tennessee—so Quinto did a mudbath of it all, especially Lyle Leverich's biography, "Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams." Reading books about Williams, he admits, "was really my main point of entry—his memoirs, his notebooks, and all those short stories that were the gestational inspiration for The Glass Menagerie."

Conspicuously missing from the Williams family household was Cornelius Coffin Williams, a shoe salesman who found shoes made for walking and never returned to the family fold. By the same token, the AWOL Wingfield patriarch is likewise long gone, "a telephone repairman who fell in love with long distance."

"There is a chain of abandonment that plagued Tennessee through his work and his life, and I think that chain began with his father," contends Quinto. "Then, that graduated to lessons of responsibility he had to face in caring for his mother and sister. I think it was that chain of abandonment that led him to write this play. He knew—and was living at the time—the need to break free of his responsibility to his family, especially the females in his family.

Quinto in The Glass Menagerie.
Photo by Michael J. Lutch

"Getting away and escaping and ultimately knowing that he needs to sacrifice his family in order to fully realize his own path—that's a very powerful notion. I think it's one that's really relatable. I think a lot of adult children can look at the ways in which that has meaning for them in one way or another. It's a very human struggle and a very human failing. It's part of what contributes to the universality of this play.

"Tennessee describes Tom as someone who is not remorseless but, to survive, must act without pity. That, for me, was a clear start for my relationship to this character. I understand that. We all have ways in which that resonates for the rest of our lives."

Quinto jump-started his career by guest-starring on numerous television series, eventually wrangling some recurring roles. He did 23 episodes on the third season of Fox's "24," and recently logged ten of the 12 installments of FX's "American Horror Story: Asylum."

For the latter, he could nab an Emmy on Sept. 22, as could his series co-stars, Jessica Lange and Sarah Paulson. "I was glad I got to share my excitement about The Glass Menagerie with them because they really knew what it's about. We didn't have any specific conversations, other than [talking] lovingly about Tennessee. I think we talked about how bizarre—what a small world it is—that I'm doing this [television] show with them, then heading off to do a play [that] starred them the last time it was on Broadway."

The Glass Menagerie will be Quinto's first time on Broadway; he previously made his Off-Broadway bow as the lost Louis Ironson in the 2011 revival of Tony Kushner's Angels in America. His feature-film debut was as Spock in J.J. Abrams's 2009 reboot of the "Star Trek" franchise, and recently reprised in the sequel, "Star Trek: Into Darkness." Leonard Nimoy, 82, who originated the role and had casting approval, personally picked Quinto to go where only a few men have gone before.

A little time-travel plot-twisting allowed both—Nimoy as Spock Prime and Quinto as his younger self—to go along on these screen rides. "I think we have a strong physical resemblance, which, on some level or another, had to do with my getting cast, but now my connection with Leonard is much more emotional. I have great respect for him. We're close friends. He'll be at the opening of The Glass Menagerie."

A third "Star Trek"—the 13th feature—is in the works. "I don't have any information about if or when it will happen," says Quinto. "We all signed up for three when we signed up for the first, so I imagine it'll happen sometime after The Glass Menagerie."

(This feature appears in the September 2013 issue of Playbill.)