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Chicago by John Olson

Sweet Bird of Youth
Goodman Theatre

Also see John's reviews of Good People and I Love Lucy Live on Stage

Sweet Bird of Youth
Diane Lane and Finn Wittrock
I guess it would be fair to call Sweet Bird of Youth a minor major play of Tennessee Williams. Major in that it had a decent Broadway run, was adapted into a well-received feature film, and is not infrequently performed in the standard repertoire. Minor in that, well it isn't The Glass Menagerie or A Streetcar Named Desire (or even Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), now is it? But, as even a minor major Williams play, it deserves a major production every so often and David Cromer's staging at the Goodman is that. Not just that it boasts a Hollywood star, Diane Lane, in the leading role of Alexandra Del Lago, but that it's a thoughtfully interpreted and all-around finely acted affair. As he did with Streetcar at Writer's Theatre two years ago, Cromer has found a way to give a fresh look at Williams' characters while remaining faithful to the text.

Lane, as the film actress travelling under the alias of Princess Kosmonopolis, has the presence and all the insecurities of the diva who deeply believes she's lost her attractiveness and ability to win acting roles in the youth and beauty obsessed film industry. Lane communicates multiple layers of Del Lago/Princess: harsh and controlling, anxious and dependent, self-centered but not altogether uncaring. She's a woman in crisis, to be sure, but we don't pity her as we see her maintain a grip, albeit a tenuous one, on reality. Lane gives us an Alexandra that's larger than life, but completely plausible and never stooping to the sort of campiness with which Williams's divas can so easily be interpreted. Lane's performance is complex and engrossing—and she is completely at home on the stage, belying the fact that this is her first time back on the boards in a while.

Cromer has made a smart choice in casting his leading man as well, giving us Broadway's Finn Wittrock (of the recent Death of a Salesman) as Chance Wayne (the role originated on stage and in the film by Paul Newman). Wittrock, a handsome and in-shape man, to be sure (and we get to spend some 75 minutes seeing him shirtless throughout the first act), is a different physical type than Newman and that gives Cromer and Wittrock the ability to interpret the character in an unexpected way. His Chance is more pretty boy than jock—neither effeminate nor rugged. We can picture him in the high school drama club as his back story tells us he was before he set off to New York to pursue an acting career, finding more regular work as a gigolo. After meeting Alexandra, on the run from her latest movie premiere which she believes to have been humiliating, he brings the movie star to his hometown on the Gulf of Mexico. There, he hopes to win back his high school sweetheart Heavenly Finley and gain a movie contract (with Alexandra's not entirely voluntary help) for the two of them.

Wittrock plays Chance as a fairly fragile and desperate man—as much stuck in his past as The Glass Menagerie's Amanda or Streetcar's Blanche DuBois. And like those two, Chance Wayne faces a stage in life when his sexual charms—about the only talent he seems to have—will not be appealing enough to serve him. As the character Miss Lucy says, "Chance used to be so handsome I could barely stand it. Now I can stand it." At age 29, he's worrying about a receding hairline and determined to find stardom and a life with Heavenly before it's too late.

In its partial similarity of themes to those of Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, the richness of its leading characters Alexandra and Chance, and the beauty of its language, Sweet Bird of Youth is pure Williams and thus worthy of our attention. That said, it's a problematic play. The long first act, mostly a dialogue between Chance and Alexandra in the elegant suite of the Royal Palms Hotel in Chance's hometown of St. Cloud, is heavy on exposition. And as we move into the second act, we seem to be in another play entirely, one where we learn of Heavenly Finley and her controlling father, the corrupt and racist southern politician Tom "Boss" Finley. Boss Finley is a larger than life character, but one we've seen in other dramas set in the south. None of this is any reflection on the actor John Judd, who brings Boss Finley to life with frightening ferocity. But this colorful character never appears in a scene with Alexandra—they never meet and their lives don't really intersect except that they're both connected to Chance. These scenes with Boss Finley occur mostly while Alexandra is hiding out in her hotel suite and physically separated by the Finley subplot. Finley's abusive treatment of Heavenly (played with some spine by Kristina Johnson), son Tom Jr. (Vincent Teninty) and mistress Miss Lucy (a spunky Jennifer Engstrom), plus the revelation that Finley ordered the castration of a black man suspected of showing sexual interest in white women, sets up some other subjects not really connected to the play's major theme of the fleeting nature of youth and beauty.

While Williams deserves credit for being one of the early Broadway dramatists to take on issues of racial equality (in fact, Sweet Bird of Youth and A Raisin in the Sun had their first Broadway performances on the very same day, March 10, 1959), Sweet Bird's theme of youth-worship is arguably less potent today. If the aging of the baby boomers and improved diet and exercise practices since the '50s haven't produced a new sort of middle-aged sex appeal, they've at least challenged the idea that people are over the hill after age 30.

That said, Cromer's production give Sweet Bird of Youth as honest and thoughtful a reading as we could want. It feels a bit small for the Goodman stage, possibly because James Schuette's minimal set design, enough to suggest an elegant part of the south in 1959, leaves lots of open space backed by a neutral blue cyc, especially in the fully exposed fly space of the stage. The third act's set—depicting the hotel bar and ballroom—fill the stage a little better, but he and Cromer do an annoying trick there. They use a turntable to alternate our point of view between the bar and the ballroom—cleverly cinematic, but they intentionally block visibility of the actors and action at points and it comes off as unsuccessfully showy. There are some odd choices in the lighting design by Keith Parham as well—obscuring the actors at times for reasons I couldn't figure out.

At three hours of playing time (including two intermissions), Sweet Bird of Youth is a long trek to get to a fairly obvious destination—sort of like a drive across Nevada where the mountains are always visible in the distance. We know we're going to get to the foothills eventually, but for hours, we don't even feel like we're moving. Even once we've arrived, the conclusion is bleak and the rewards of the journey are hardly cathartic. Here's a spoiler alert for those who don't know the play (and its ending is very different from the movie)—Chance faces certain castration by Boss Finley's men and chooses to endure it, though he has the chance to escape. This is possibly to prove his love for Heavenly, or maybe to reject the promiscuous sexual lifestyle that has proved empty for him and holds so little hope for the future. In that sense, even as we're horrified by the cruelty of the Boss's men, we may find some uplift from Chance's display of integrity and rejection of his vanity. Or maybe not: in doing research for this article, I learned that castration prevents the onset of male pattern baldness.

Sweet Bird of Youth will play the Goodman's Albert Theater, 170 North Dearborn, Chicago, through October 28, 2012. For ticket information, visit www.goodmantheatre.org, the box office, or call 312-443-3800.


Photo: Liz Lauren

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-- John Olson



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