Sweet Bird of Youth

Touchstone Theatre

The Glass Menagerie

Tess Productions, at Red Bones Theatre

The recent Modern Masters Festival in Louisville featuring the work of avant-garde director Anne Bogart (which I didn’t attend but keep reading about) has raised the specter of godless naturalism again: realism is ruining American theater. A specter does seem to be haunting American theater, or at least Chicago theater, but it’s the specter of mediocrity. Specifically, directorial mediocrity. Too many directors don’t seem to fully understand the works they’re directing, or at least they don’t seem to know how to get their actors to deliver performances that suit the plays they’re doing.

Everyone knows that an actor’s default style is TV or movie naturalism. (An actor hoping to make a living would be a fool not to learn how to perform for the camera.) But why is every play treated as if it were just a stage version of a movie or TV show? Even Ayckbourn farces get played that way, with actors ruining perfectly good jokes through deadly underplaying. And God help works that are hybrids of naturalism and something else (such as the plays of David Mamet or Tennessee Williams). A bad director will squash all that’s interesting in the work and focus instead on creating real tough Chicagoans or authentic New Orleans accents.

Touchstone Theatre’s production of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth is a case in point. Ina Marlowe isn’t an awful director. She’s just not always good. Especially when she takes on a project that demands something more than conventional realistic acting. Which explains why her versions of Noel Coward’s Design for Living and Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular–both comedies demanding a heightened musical-theater kind of acting–were so much less satisfying than her takes on Chekhov (The Seagull) and Theodore Dreiser (Sister Carrie).

Williams admitted that Sweet Bird of Youth, his weirdly beautiful, lurid yet lyrical melodrama, was really two plays: one about a drug-crazed Tallulah Bankhead-like star and the gigolo she depends on, Chance Wayne; the other about Chance’s tragic attempt to win back his childhood love. Neither play is strictly comic or tragic but, like Shakespeare’s rich work, a blend of both.

The play contains some marvelously funny lines and a farcelike sequence set in a hotel bar with lots of funny entrances and exits punctuated by a comic climax in which the nasty Boss Finley is heckled live on TV. But the play also contains moments of horrific violence, as when the heckler is beaten senseless by Finley’s youth organization, as well as lines of disarming beauty, which you might expect from a playwright with a poet’s gift for language. (Williams’s first love was poetry.) It takes a rare and wonderful director to weave together a production from so many disparate threads, and Marlowe is not that director. Her actors never quite find the style that fits Williams’s words, and the production shatters into numerous fragments–some marvelous, some excruciating, some merely boring.

The worst by far of these fragments is the histrionic first act, in which Melina Moonahan’s faded actress bellows and thrashes around, mangling every nice line that comes her way, while Lawrence Woshner’s Chance Wayne hangs dumbly around, sometimes shirtless, sometimes not, like a slab of beefcake waiting for his close-up. The best fragment is the second half of the second act, when Farrel Wilson, as Boss Finley’s mistress, stalks and struts and drawls around the stage, setting the right tone and pace for the mostly comic act.

The unity of Williams’s play is further disrupted by the uneven acting in secondary roles. Most disappointing is Rohanna Doylida’s drab performance as Heavenly, the love of Chance’s life and the reason he risks all to return to his hometown and those who hate him.

When Chance delivers his sorrowful last lines–“I don’t ask for your pity, but just for your understanding”–it’s hard not to feel sorry for poor Tennessee. So misunderstood. So ill used.

But Williams got off easy in the Touchstone production. At least Marlowe got the play right part of the time.

Having suffered through Tom Tenney’s attempt at The Glass Menagerie, I’m not convinced he knows what the play is about–or even that he’s read it. I don’t know how else to explain a production so full of Ed Wood touches: awkward acting, really fake looking sets, loud, unrealistic sound effects that do nothing but disorient the audience. It’s almost funny, the way Plan 9 From Outer Space is funny: as an accidental comedy.

You know this production is in trouble from the moment a glassy-eyed Stephen Rader enters and delivers Tom Wingfield’s beautiful first speech so slowly and eccentrically that words don’t seem part of the same sentence: “Yes. I have tricks (pause) in my pocket. I have things (pause) up my (long pause) sleeve.” Then Bobbi Schultz’s wooden Amanda Wingfield enters, followed by pretty, pert Terri McPhee, whose Laura, despite a very pronounced limp, seems so healthy you expect her to leap up at any moment and shout: Tennis, anyone?

From that point on we’re in an alternative theatrical universe, a world where Amanda, the witchy faded southern belle (with a dash of white trash), comes off as a woman full of sensible advice and where Tom and Laura are the villains (for not taking her advice). Not an ounce of Williams’s despair-laden subtext comes through. When Tom speaks his last line, “Blow out (pause) your can (pause) dles (long pause) Laura,” we don’t have the foggiest idea what he means–though we do know that we can finally leave the theater.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Steve Shay.