This is American Repertory Theatre‘s production of Tennessee Williams’s most biographical play, the one that made his name. And, although it has little of the sweep and transgressive bravado of the later works, it has a poetic tension and elegance all its own. In St Louis the fatherless Wingfield family are down on their uppers. Mother Amanda (Cherry Jones) could have been a plantation owner’s wife but instead, married to a philandering wrong ‘un, now finds herself living in rented rooms overlooking a dancehall with her grown-up children: selfish dreamer Tom (Michael Esper) and emotionally fragile Laura (Kate O’Flynn). The latter is crippled with shyness as much as anything else. It’s tempting to think Amanda’s husband walked out as he could no longer tolerate her constant nagging or the thought of the thoroughly maudlin Millie that his daughter is sure to become. There’s the threat of war in far-off Europe and a sense of imminent danger but there’s hope and a safe and comfortable middle-class life to be had if you work hard, do the right thing and marry well.

The worry is Laura’s future in a world that “barely tolerates spinsters; birdlike women without a nest”. Maddening matriarch Amanda sets out to find a respectable gentleman caller for her daughter who is more at home with her phonograph and collection of animal-shaped glass ornaments. It’s a gloomy play and some of its attitudes are as dated as a potted aspidistra. “In these trying times the only thing we have to cling to is each other,” says ma. The son yearns to get away from his suffocating family. Laura lost in a dream world. The writing is elegiac and revelatory. Says Tom, talking in hindsight of the home he escaped and to which he never returned: “I didn’t get to the moon, I went much further – for time is the longest distance between two places.”

The solution of marrying off Laura is preloaded with disaster and the prospect of the jock Jim (Seth Numrich) enlivens mother to the point of near hysteria, so much so that she can’t see that, as a beau, a worse choice for wallflower Laura would be difficult to find. Laura has long been smitten by Jim in high school although he never knew it and, as he tells her of his hopes and dreams, heartbroken Laura’s shyness falls away. The trap is set.

The Glass Menagerie was a triumph when it was first staged in the 1940s. It’s a thoughtful, exploratory study of co-dependency and self-delusion capturing a time just before America boomed and gave birth to a rampant consumer economy; a time before the concept of instant gratification. As Williams wrote in another play ten years later: “We’re all sentenced to solitary confinement in our own skins.”

The play is full of poignancy and tendresse and you can almost smell the far-off jonquils, magnolia and dank dogwood. The playing is excellent throughout especially Jones as the non-stop mother who inadvertently drives a wedge between her and her children. There’s a wonderful score from Nico Muhly and Bob Crowley’s set design is dominated by an ominous fire escape climbing to heaven. Fresh from his Harry Potter triumph in the West End John Tiffany’s direction keeps the focus on the actors and Williams’s lyrical text, never letting things slide into sentimentality or the melodramatic.