The Glass Menagerie. Play by Tennessee Williams. Starring Jessica Tandy. Directed by John Dexter.
It is nearly 40 years since Laura Wingfield blew out her mother's bravely flickering candles as the curtain fell on the first performance of ''The Glass Menagerie.'' The candles have been relighted countless times in the intervening decades. Like Tennessee Williams's incandescent masterpiece, they have continued casting a lovely glow over the American theatrical scene.
Nothing of that glow has been lost in the revival starring Jessica Tandy at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. Arriving in the midst of a less than lustrous season , this welcome addition to the Broadway bill of fare gives playgoers something very special to celebrate. The event itself is a celebration.
The production staged by John Dexter recaptures the recollected images of Williams's memory play with a grasp as firm as it is gentle. Watching ''The Glass Menagerie'' is like seeing the figures in a family album magically come to life. As Tom Wingfield, who also serves as narrator, announces near the beginning of the play: ''I give you truth in the pleasant form of illusion. To begin with, I turn back time.''
''The Glass Menagerie'' turns back time to the early 1930s - time as it was passed in a tenement flat above a dreary back alley in St. Louis. As designed by Ming Cho Lee and atmospherically lighted by Andy Phillips, the shabby but genteel setting seems suspended in a looming urban surround as surreal and tangible as the play's passing references to economic depression and imminent war.
Amanda Wingfield (Miss Tandy), the central figure in the claustrophobic household, is an erstwhile Southern belle who battles adversity by trying to relive the past of her carefree girlhood. Chivalrously courted - and later deserted - by the gentleman caller who wooed and won her, Amanda was left to make a home for her two children. Home at present is the squalid apartment paid for from son Tom's meager earnings as a warehouse clerk in a shoe factory. Worried as she is about Tom's rebellious and restless ways, Amanda reserves her deepest concern for Laura (Amanda Plummer), the daughter whose painful shyness is due only in part to the fact that she is slightly lame. With the mingled desperation and false optimism of which only Amanda is capable, she browbeats Tom into inviting one of the young men at the warehouse home for dinner. The effort is made and, in a scene of quiet heartbreak, the effort fails.
One of the many strengths of Miss Tandy's illuminating performance lies in her sympathetic understanding of a woman whose comic but tiresome affectations are in fact part of the life-support system that enables Amanda to survive. Miss Tandy realizes the qualities with which Williams invested Amanda - the courage and determination along with the foolishness and false illusions, the real maternal tenderness that can suddenly break through the nagging and fussing.
As she did so marvelously in the context of ''Foxfire,'' Miss Tandy momentarily recaptures in a few dance steps the youthful ecstasy of a romantic, silly, but no doubt adorable girl. The moment is matched by the tenderness with which Amanda seeks to console the stricken Laura at the end of the play.
After a somewhat tentative start, Bruce Davison gives a firmly assured performance as Tom observes with both compassion and humor the events leading up to the young man's irrevocable decision to leave home. Miss Plummer's quietude as the shy but intelligent Laura makes the more affecting the long final scene, in which the girl experiences a moment of rapture undreamed of amid her customary world of miniature glass animals and old phonograph records. Williams describes Jim O'Connor, the ''gentleman caller,'' as ''just a nice, ordinary young man.'' John Heard meets that exacting requirement with disarming simplicity and affecting honesty.
Besides the pop tunes of the time (heard from a nearby dance hall), there is also the Paul Bowles incidental music to enhance the mood, because, as Williams wrote, ''in memory everything happens to music.'' Patricia Zipprodt's costumes harmonize with the pictorial image of the revival.
The small animals glisten and the candles glitter briefly in the apartment over the alley in St. Louis. All is well with ''The Glass Menagerie.''