Tennessee Williams' fleet of fragile, fading beauties contains many traps for long-beautiful actresses eager to publicly confront their neuroses and their mortality, if only to assert that they're not in denial about the constant ravages of time, even though we all are. But Diane Lane, whose richly textured performance is a needed anchor for director David Cromer's passionate, arresting and unwieldy Goodman Theatre production of Tennessee Williams' "Sweet Bird of Youth," understands that Alexandra del Largo is not a faded grand dame so much as a savvy, long-haul star on a sensual, sexual sabbatical. Lane's Hollywood princess is not falling apart, she's burnishing and rehabilitating her long-term brand with Finn Wittrock's yearning, wildly overmatched young gigolo, all while plotting her inevitable comeback.
Or to put it another way, this mighty shrewd performance evokes something closer to Lindsay Lohan coming to the end of rehab than Norma Desmond gasping her last.
Cromer has rightly honed in on the play's key idea: it's the 29-year-old Southern man, not his consort, who is losing his plumage. Del Lago has many options and the perennial ear of a Hollywood columnist in need of a good story of a return from the wilderness. But as the terrific Wittrock reveals very clearly by simply allowing his wretched guy to stare out into the abyss, looking prematurely ravaged, the smooth-chested, small-town servicer of lonely stars has already smashed his head against a ceiling built by the small-minded.
In "Sweet Bird of Youth," a young drifter arrives back in his hometown, with a bill-paying Hollywood star in tow, in order to scoop up Heavenly, (Kristina Johnson) the previously-ravaged daughter of a Boss Finley (John Judd), a raging conservative politician. It is a difficult, meandering text filled with a plethora of furiously miserable souls. It did not get much love when it premiered on Broadway in 1959, starring Paul Newman and Geraldine Page.
But for all its formative challenges, not all of which Cromer yet has solved or contained in the narrative sweep that the director seems, some of the time, to want, this prescient play is suffused with the sexual disgust that would roil the small-town South for the next half century. It anticipates the culture wars, the circling of the wagons and the economic marginalization that only intensified those battles, further tightening the vice around restless, nonconformist young men like Chance Wayne, whose qualifications are merely temporary and who never went to the kind of college that will get them out of the way of the mob coming to rough them up for good. Even Wayne's wildest dreams are limited. Johnson plays Heavenly not as a celestial prize but as an ordinary, flustered girl.
Cromer, wisely, does not formatively approach this messy, lyrical play with his trademark truth-tellers' scalpel. Rather, with the help of his designer James Schuette and composer Josh Schmidt, he mostly embraces its florid, fluttering nature in a fabric and video-fused production that, like the play, always feels slightly out of control and, well, unfinished. (If this production moves elsewhere, the trick will be to smooth and focus and cohere without removing the potent patina of panic). Schuette, who designed both set and costumes, takes an overtly operatic approach with the former and a mostly naturalistic one with the latter. The huge design boldly embraces the different environments of the drama, setting Boss Finley's place on a rectangular pedestal, far upstage, allowing for a sharp contract with the way the more vulnerable characters talk directly to the audience downstage, often bathed in a sudden, awkward spotlight.
Weirdly, Cromer messes with the original acts, creating a short Act 2 from Finley's place alone, and then attaching the subsequent scene at the Royal Palms Hotel to the concluding scene back in Chance and Alexandra's hotel room. The rationale, presumably, was to intensify the connection between those two scenes, focused as they are on Chance's cumulative unraveling, but it also rather emasculates the original second act. It's an area that needs work.
Schuette has built a revolving tour de force for that scene at the Royal Palms — most of the scene is played with the set in motion, with the dominant views coming from counterintuitive locales, such as the back of the bar. The ideas here come as fast as furious as the play's growing sense of terror as Boss Finley's conservative rally is rendered in a fascistic flurry and Chance, wandering through a hotel that once accommodated his sleazy little ambitions but now is hunting him down, as if he were a yellow-dog Democrat at a tea party rally. The trajectory is not entirely secure but this is a truly inspired way to stage this particularly nightmarish scene, which Wittrock allows to exact its price on his pretty face.
Lane, who was not the first actress attached to a Cromer project once destined for Broadway, brings some palpable advantages to Cromer's Chicago table. She has Hollywood beauty and the regal demeanor of the old school; that's never in doubt. But although a star since childhood, Lane also has a sense of humor and a history of brat-pack insouciance; she is a straddler of eras, which is ideal for this particular role. It allows for more of an injection of flat naturalism, cool cynicism and, most crucially, constant self-awareness, which in Williams' imaginative landscape always gives a character power, thus sharpening Chance's lack chronic thereof.
Aside from Lane, who mercifully does not stand out like a star turn in Cromer's New York and Chicago-based ensemble of actors, Cromer also lines up an army of opposition against Wittrock's Chance, including Judd as an intimidating Boss Finley, Colm O'Reilly, whose George Scudder is a study of malevolent grays, and Vincent Teninty as a puffed-up, vengeful brother. All Chance really has in his corner is Penny Slusher's simpering, terrified Aunt Nonnie, telling him that needy stars leave scars and to get the heck out of dodge, while he's still young enough to run.
When: Through Oct. 28
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Running time: 3 hours, 10 minutes
Tickets: $27-$89 at 312-443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org
170 N. Dearborn St.