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David Cromer’s directorial revival of Sweet Bird of Youth is a complex and undulating drama that’s bursting at the seams with creative talent. In the context of playwright Tennessee Williams, this dark, subversive subject matter is nothing new. But Cromer, his talented leads and a capable cast of 17, still manage to surprise us, dividing and conquering the drama scene after scene, with each act surging haphazardly towards the next.
Academy Award nominee Diane Lane returns to the stage as Alexandra del Lago, a famous actress traveling incognito after a disastrous film premiere that she is convinced has devastated her career. Her travel companion is 29-year-old Chance Wayne (Broadway’s Finn Wittrock), an actor-turned-gigolo who brings his benefactress home to the Gulf Coast in hopes of impressing the people of his past, reclaiming his former glory and winning back his girl, Heavenly Finley (Kristina Johnson). This unlikely pair, a Hollywood has-been and an inadequate drifter, serve as each other’s mirrors and opposites, overly aware of the hideous pathos within them, but hopeful that there is some beauty left in the wreckage of their pasts.
Roles like these are not easy to execute. While the seasoned Lane sees her character through from start to finish, fully grasping the complex aftermath of decades lost in a split second, Wittrock’s portrayal of Chance is slow to start. While he could use better delivery in the “desperation” department, he eventually finds his footing in the second act, quickly regaining any lost emotional ground to give a raw and surprisingly heartbreaking performance.
As the production progresses, the tables quite literally turn thanks to the innovative stage design of James Schuette, who manages to merge two sets into one on a rotating platform. The audience is transported between a ritzy hotel bar and televised press conference in the third act, sometimes on the outskirts, sometimes in the thick of things, but always kept close to the ebb and flow of the characters themselves: Heavenly as she succumbs to her corrupt and ruthless father, the conservative politician Boss Finley (John Judd); the scandalous Miss Lucy (Jennifer Engstrom) as she plots her revenge against the ‘Boss’; Chance as he unravels with a bout of pills and vodka; and Alexandra as she tries to save Chance while simultaneously saving a part of herself.
A testament to the production, the design is a juxtaposition of light and dark, utilizing a sheer, white drape to give the set an ephemeral and dreamlike quality. Beautifully executed projections by Maya Ciarrochi, reminiscent of film noir, are sporadically tossed onto the canvas of the drapes, reminding us how haunting it can be to confront the truth in our shadows.
Through this rendition of Sweet Bird of Youth, David Cromer proves himself a capable interpreter of dark, poetic drama. The characters in this production will seduce you, haunt you, and perplex you, all while revealing a truth within you that did not exist before sitting down in your seat at the Goodman.
Sweet Bird of Youth runs through October 28. Tickets are $27-$88 and can be purchased at goodmantheatre.org.