Tennessee Williams' "Sweet Bird of Youth" is about the ravages of age. At its core are a once-glamorous movie star, running from what she perceives as a failed comeback, and her gigolo, a would-be star whose only asset -- his youth -- is fading faster than he can keep up with it.
But as is clear from Michael Kahn's production at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre, this 1959 play is itself a faded star. And despite the larger-than-life presence of Elizabeth Ashley as the waning movie diva, as well as Kahn's well-chosen emphasis on the play's more symbolic and stagy elements, Williams' script comes across as melodramatic, instead of tragic.
Kahn and Ashley have a famed association with Williams, which began in 1975 when Kahn directed her in the Broadway revival of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." The director has said he has wanted to work with her on "Sweet Bird" ever since, and, as fictitious screen star Alexandra del Lago, with her hair a Medusa-esque torrent of dyed blond curls and her plump physique straining against a tight black slip, Ashley is an irrepressible, uninhibited force of nature -- the archetypal Williams heroine.
After gasping for air, then curling up with a bottle of vodka and an oxygen mask, Ashley growls at gigolo Chance Wayne, "When monster meets monster, one monster has to give way, and it will never be me."
There is no reason to doubt her.
By comparison, Michael Hayden's Chance, who is initially taking care of del Lago, is a spineless parasite from the start. And Ashley's del Lago treats him as a mixture of pet, servant and little boy -- all roles he willingly plays at one point or another, although Hayden makes the imbalance between them a little too obvious.
Initially, Chance is supposed to be under the misconception that not she, is in charge. Nor does he grasp the fundamental difference in their shared trait of vanity. She has something genuine to be vain about; he only has his looks, and those are disappearing as rapidly as the hairs collecting in his comb.
There are several versions of Williams' script, and Kahn has chosen one the playwright rewrote after the movie and the Broadway play (both of which starred Paul Newman and Geraldine Page). This subsequent script has harder edges and paints a crueler picture of Chance, but it is every bit as heavily plotted.
Returning to his small Southern hometown in the late 1950s, Chance plans to blaze a path of glory, and, thanks to del Lago, leave with motion picture contracts for himself and his high school sweetheart, Heavenly. But despite the warnings of nearly everyone he meets, he dismisses the threats of Heavenly's father, "the biggest political wheel in this part of the country."
Kahn employs a number of overtly presentational flourishes that help turn the focus away from the play's melodramatic aspects and toward such larger issues as self-delusion, the infatuation with youth, the meaning of success and the nature of power. Chief among these flourishes is a non-naturalistic approach to some of the key monologues. By having the speaker stand, spotlighted, at the edge of the stage, Kahn reminds the audience that the play is about something more than its story or characters, it is about some of the most dangerously ingrained and debilitating illusions in American society.
Yet the melodrama cannot be entirely suppressed. It surfaces most glaringly in David Sabin's one-note portrayal of Heavenly's evil father, Boss Finley. (Though Heavenly herself is given touching, if somewhat Ophelia-like performance by Elizabeth Sastre.) And the flimsiness of melodrama surely contributed to the laughter that erupted inappropriately from Sunday night's audience when del Lago and Chance scuffled near the end.
In Williams' script, artistry triumphs over the process of aging, and there are indeed many examples of artistry in this production -- not the least of which is the opportunity to see Ashley revel in one the playwright's showiest roles. But even her knowing, visceral performance is not enough to propel this "Sweet Bird" into flight.
'Sweet Bird of Youth'
Where: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St., N.W., Washington
When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and July 1 (no performance tonight); through July 19
Pub Date: 6/02/98