Growing old is hard to do in the T. Schreiber Studio's production of Tennessee Williams' "Sweet Bird of Youth."
Review by Ellen Wernecke
One of my high school English teachers used to tell us there are only two plots in literature, "a man goes on a journey" and "a stranger comes to town." The protagonist of "Sweet Bird of Youth," Tennessee Williams' play now up at the T. Schreiber Studio, is driving both of those plots, but what he wants is only part of the picture in this opus on delayed gratification and moth-eaten desire.
Chance Wayne (Eric Watson Williams), one-time would-be actor, is both the man going and the stranger coming as the play opens. In high school, he ran with the town's teenaged in-crowd because of his good looks and his A-list girlfriend, Heavenly Finley (Shelley Virginia). Since then -- and we're never told exactly how long, exactly, he's been away -- things have been downhill for the kid who would be in pictures: Still not a star, he's settled for being a pair of hips for hire, currently tagging along with the past-her-prime actress Alexandra de Lago (Joanna Bayless), who insists on being called the Princess, en route to no particular place.
So Chance has steered the Princess back to his hometown of St. Cloud, Mississippi, and explains to her more or less that he's come to take Heavenly away, even though he couldn't be bothered to stop in for his mother's funeral a few weeks earlier. If he had stopped in, he might have found out that her father, politician Boss Finley (David Donahoe) has it in for him because on his last visit he gave Heavenly something contagious to remember him by, and now she flits about the family home like a ghost.
There's the anvil hanging over Chance Wayne's head, and he spends most of "Sweet Bird Of Youth" unaware of its presence. What he does recognize, though, and where the Princess has him beat, is the passage of time that is stealing away that which made him special. (In this sense, maybe Williams is a little too good looking for the role -- you can't see anything decaying around his edges.) The Princess might be able to explain to him what comes after beauty fades, but she's got her own baggage and her hashish habit to obscure her own sight. In her dreamy, noodly speeches, Bayless takes a character that could have been a caricature -- Norma Desmond, anyone? -- and makes her the only pure-hearted one in the bunch. After all, Heavenly's a victim who let her anger pickle her, and lets herself be used as a prop in the Boss's campaigns as a symbol of white frailty in the South, and the Boss's black mistress (Andrea Jackson) can't decide whether she can live with herself or not.
Chance isn't a classic cad with a tortured heart, but a deluded soul who thinks he can stall Time's chariot long enough to snatch his old girlfriend away. "All my vices I caught from other people," he declares early on without a hint of mea culpa. Williams loves delusion in all its forms, but he seeks it out in young men -- think of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"'s Brick, wedged between his two selves and resisting entreaties from either side. "I'm forgetting, I'm forgetting," mutters the Princess in the first act; but Chance can't, even as the walls of St. Cloud close in around him.
"Sweet Bird of Youth"
Now Playing at the T. Schreiber Studio/ Gloria Maddox Theatre, 151 W. 26th St.
Thursdays-Saturdays 8pm, Sundays at 3pm
Tickets: $20, Theatermania.com
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