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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
Sweet Bird of Youth
By Elyse Sommer
The Broadway production of Sweet Bird of Youth which evolved from a 1940s a one-act play, The Enemy: Time was buoyed by its poetry, structural innovation (characters whose audience addressing monologues seem to send them temporarily flying out of the play) and a memorable cast headed by Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, Sidney Blackmer and Rip Torn. It lived on as a film and is now being given a lovely and intriguing interpretation at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
Unlike the initial Main Stage production, Anything Goes, this revival has been given an elegant and rich staging. Best of all, it boasts a terrific cast, especially the astutely chosen leads who put a fresh spin on the characters Williams dubbed as two monsters: Monster one is Margaret Colin as film star Alexandra del Lago who, to escape the disastrous reviews of her last film is travelling as Princess Kosmonopolis with the aptly named monster number two, Derek Cecil as twenty-nine-year-old Chance Wayne for whom hitching himself to her fading star is a last chance attempt at capturing his youthful dreams before his thinning hair gets even sparser.
Colin, whose recent role in John Patrick Shanley's Defiance had New York critics once again wondering why she's not seen on stage more often, is not an actress for operatic emotionalism, but she's got a way of digging deep into her characters. She injects her "monster" with enough residual humor and humanity to make us believe in her ability to deal with the grief for her youth and its attendant glories. She may not be able to keep the bird of youth from flying away, but she makes you believe that she has enough confidence and common sense to survive even without the final act's surprise news of her temporary reprieve from obscurity. As she herself puts it during the riveting first act dance of mutual manipulation with Chance, "When monster meets monster, one has to give way and I will never let go."
The plot plays out in St Cloud, the coastal Missippi town where Chance grew up and had his only genuine love affair with a girl named Heavenly Finley (only a poet like Williams can get away with these oh-so-Southern gothic names). The romance was broken up by her father a ruthless right wing politician father. Chance has manipulated the Princess into making a stop at St. Cloud where he hopes to renew his romance, unaware that Heavenly has been in Hell since he infected her with a venereal disease and her father had her sexually lobotomized. Of course, reconnecting with Heavenly is as much a pipe dream as his Hollywood ambitions, and the inevitable outcome of his return is that Boss Finley and his boorish bully of a son will have their eye-for-an-eye vengeance for his besmirching Heavenly's purity.
While David Jones can't keep this Sweet Bird from boiling over into its overcooked melodramatic finale, he has made the entire three hours eminently watchable, thanks to his subtly graceful direction and the excellent work elicited from the entire cast. Gerry Bamman, a fine character actor, is a thrillingly evil Boss Finley and Christopher Evans Welch, a young actor whose career I've watched since first seeing him at Williamstown, is perfect as the bad apple that doesn't fall far from the rotten tree. Bess Wohl is a creditable Heavenly and Betsy Aidem and Beth Fowler make the most of minor but typical Williams female characters.
Unlike the disappointingly bare bones staging of Anything Goes, Derek Mc Lane's towering set takes full advantage of the spacious new theater, with the tall, airy back panels and a wrought iron staircase used to create three distinct settings, including Boss Finley's estate with its distinct whiff of the gulf's rippling waves and breezes. The mood for each scene is lit to perfection by David Weiner, and supported by John Gromada's original music. The time and place are further enhanced by Ilona Somogyi's costumes (though Colin's strapless green evening gown seems an odd choice even for a movie icon masquerading as a princess).
I've heard a lot of grumbling from South County summer residents about not wanting to trek up to Williamstown after being disappointed by both initial main and second stage productions. I would advise them to forget what was and instead enjoy what is while they can. This is summer theater at its carefully crafted best.
For more information about Tennessee Williams and other Williams plays we've reviewed, see our Tennessee Williams Backgrounder.