Overwhelmed by Williams 

Tennessee's Sweet Bird of Youth flies away from its director

Goodman's Bird reflects the brutality of time Williams wrote about

Goodman's Bird reflects the brutality of time Williams wrote about

Liz Lauren

As much as I hated it when I saw it last spring, I've got to admit that the Goodman Theatre production of Tennessee Williams's Camino Real got one thing profoundly right. Director Calixto Bieito added a character—Williams himself—and had him wander through the show, bearing witness and serving as a kind of human sacrifice to the god of addiction. True to his overall aesthetic, Bieito did his best to degrade this figure, who wore a cheap raincoat, drank from a paper bag, jabbered, and spat out a bottle cap during his death throes—a crude reference to Williams's actual death by asphyxiation. But the basic notion of having the playwright haunt his own play was insightful. Few authors are as thoroughly present in their oeuvre as Williams was and continues to be. Perhaps because he wrote so compulsively and returned so often to his own primal scenes, Williams seems to have transcended the whole concept of aesthetic distance. His work isn't just autobiographical, it's hyperbiographical—everything is saturated with him.

That being the case, it may be that Bieito felt he had to mock and murder Williams in order to exorcise him from Camino Real and make the play his own.

If only David Cromer had done something similar with his Goodman Theatre production of a Williams script. Cromer's Sweet Bird of Youth goes well beyond the saturation point—it pretty much drowns in Williams. And that isn't good.

Sweet Bird of Youth is a one-hand-other-hand proposition: a marvelous, sprawling thing, full of mythic resonance . . . and also a grandiose slog. First performed on Broadway in 1959, with Paul Newman in the lead, it can be understood as the last piece of an informal trilogy—after Orpheus Descending (1957) and Suddenly, Last Summer (1958)—in which beautiful young men are more or less ritually slaughtered as atonement for the desire they set in motion.

The beautiful young man this time around is Chance Wayne, a child of the deep south, raised poor by his mother in a town called Saint Cloud, "somewhere along the Gulf Coast." The die was cast for Chance in his teens, when he simultaneously got the acting bug and fell in love with Heavenly Finley, the free-spirited daughter of local political chieftain Boss Finley. Heavenly reciprocated with a wild passion, but Boss had other ideas. A self-made man fond of telling folks how he came down out of the hills, barefoot, at 15, Boss decided that Heavenly (and he) could do a whole lot better than Chance. He exiled the boy, who made up his mind to show them all by getting rich in Hollywood and coming back for his beloved.

Well, it didn't work out like he planned. As Heavenly puts it, Chance "went. He tried. The right doors wouldn't open, and so he went in the wrong ones." Now he's a gigolo, slightly past his prime, prone to swigging vodka from a flask and popping little pink pills that make him antsy.

He hasn't given up, though. As the play starts, Chance is back in Saint Cloud in the company of a movie star named Alexandra del Lago, also past her prime. He thinks she's the deus ex machina who's going to turn everything around.

There's a lot more to it, including a subplot about Boss's bid to position himself as a Strom Thurmond-esque protector of white womanhood against the depredations of sex-crazed blacks and their integrationist allies. Williams is endlessly inventive. Trouble is, in this instance he's also endlessly loquacious. As Sweet Bird winds through its three-hour running time, it keeps picking up ungainly exchanges and repetitive speeches about the brutality of time. The play ends on an inadvertently comic note, with Chance actually holding back the curtain so he can tell us just one more thing.

An obvious option would be to do some cutting. But as far as I can tell, Cromer hasn't tried that. He attempts to accommodate the entire opus, and it overwhelms him. The long—and, in this instance, shapeless—opening scene loses all momentum at times, threatening simply to gutter out like a spent candle. Rather than draw focus, scenic devices such as Maya Ciarrocchi's projections and James Schuette's revolving platform unit tend to squander our attention and diminish the actors. In short, there's no one and nothing here to rein in the unmitigated, excessive Williamsishness of Sweet Bird—which is to say, no one and nothing to give us access to the gorgeous Williamsishness at its heart.

Cromer's star leads, Diane Lane and Finn Wittrock, are surprisingly ineffectual. Certainly, Keith Parham's oddly diffuse lighting design does them no favors. But the real problem is that they're miscast. Chance is rock dumb, a not-so-distant cousin of Joe Buck from Midnight Cowboy; Wittrock conveys an intelligence that renders the character's choices inscrutable when they should be foolhardy. Lane just doesn't look like the ruin del Lago is supposed to be.

The bright spots are local actors like Colm O'Reilly, John Judd, and Penny Slusher. Everything picks up when they're around. Judd in particular dominates his scenes as Boss Finley, making Williams his own.

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