When Diane Lane first arrived at the Goodman Theatre to begin rehearsals for David Cromer's much-anticipated fall production of Tennessee Williams' "Sweet Bird of Youth," someone handed the famous actress — star of such movies as "Rumble Fish," "Unfaithful" and "Secretariat," and one of Hollywood's great beauties — a poster for her approval. It did not receive the desired response.
"Something had been done to the image," Lane said during a conversation in a corner of the Atwood Cafe, suddenly becoming animated. "I said to the gentleman in charge of the poster, this is not 29-and-holding here. I've lived with this equipment awhile. This is false advertising."
Lane raised a finger and pointed to her face. "Bring it on," she said. "Welcome to being over the hill."
When her interviewer, a generational peer, suggested that he knew the feeling, Lane's tone changed a little. "Ah," she said. "But I had to fall from a greater pedestal."
After a momentary feeling of pique, the interviewer had to allow that this was, indeed, the case. Lane has been a spokeswoman for cosmetics. A smitten Laurence Olivier once declared her to be "the new Grace Kelly," which did her nascent career no harm. Andy Warhol waxed rhapsodic on Lane's charms. And, in 1979, the cover of Time Magazine, then a showcase of singular global prestige, was occupied entirely by her fresh, 14-year-old face. By then, Lane, whose career began at age 6, in "Medea" of all things, was already a whiz-kid movie star.
The poster, the Goodman would later confirm, was changed to comply with Lane's specifications. Whatever had been airbrushed away was restored to kind-of reality, if your reality is to look like Lane does at age 47, which is hardly common. The broader point was nonetheless made. Lane is, to use her own words, officially "leaning into" the role of Princess Kosmonopolis, also known as Alexander Del Lago, a faded movie star whose looks and talents are in steep decline and whose relationship with the young gigolo Chance Wayne (to be played at the Goodman by Finn Wittrock) could not be sadder.
Lane, who is married to actor Josh Brolin, talked of her father, Burton Eugene Lee, a New York acting teacher and a man, she said, who insisted that adulthood did not begin until after age 30. "My father," said Lane, also referencing a recent trip to Lenscrafters for eyewear, "was trying to make me stronger for what this deals with. This play is a reckoning of mortality."
If you are a current Hollywood star like Lane — she will appear in the new Superman movie, "Man of Steel," as Martha Kent — you might as well pursue such a reckoning in Chicago, away from industry glares.
Cromer's production of "Sweet Bird" had its genesis in a Broadway idea: The hot-stuff director, whose roots are deeply embedded in Chicago theater, was going to direct the play on Broadway with Nicole Kidman in the role now being played by Lane. But the project, like many such projects, fell apart. The Goodman, a theater where Cromer has never worked, stepped into the breach, and Cromer offered the role to Lane, who'd not been discussed when the revival was to be in New York.
Even now, Broadway is hardly out of the question. This is a show that will attract national attention and New York producers, if the reviews are good. But, as is good defensive practice, Lane said she has no plans to play the part anywhere but Chicago. She is, she said, not interested in sitting on Broadway for a year thereafter. Well, a few months, maybe.
It has been a long time since Lane has done any stage work; the last significant occasion was when she played Olivia in "Twelfth Night" at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., in 1989. But if you go way back, she did a lot, including a role in Joseph Papp's production of "The Cherry Orchard," featuring Meryl Streep. At the time, Lane was 12.
Once Cromer's offer came in, Lane says she "asked around" about the director and got the reports she wanted. She read the play and "couldn't see how tall it went or how deep it went," which was a good thing, and decided that this was the right time to do such a project. (Her daughter from her first marriage, to Christopher Lambert, has just gone away to college, emptying the nest.)
"I don't know, I suppose readiness is everything," Lane said when asked why she'd not done such a project before. "I'm in an expansive cycle. It has taken me a while to see what theater offers people. When you're making a movie, you're in a whole different delivery system. The thought of what someone out there actually is receiving is like something on another planet."
In Chicago, relatively free of paparazzi, few have noticed Lane so far. The actress, who insists she did not have enough to say at the time that most people cared about what she had to say, is quite the poetic interviewee these days.
"I wake up in the morning in Chicago to the sound of the train," she said, cheerily. "I get a hiccup as to where the next revelation may lie. I know that Tennessee is a deity to trust. And David is his conductor."
"Of course," she went on, experienced if a tad rueful, "it is outside of one's ability to control how one comes off. Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable seems to be the present theme, and I'm only interested in the present, not the past at all."
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