Sweet Bird of Youth
Sweet Bird of Youth Credit: Tim Knight

SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH The Artistic Home | CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF Raven Theatre

In the foreword to the 1959 drama Sweet Bird of Youth, now receiving a superb revival at the Artistic Home, a 47-year-old Tennessee Williams quotes from a letter he says he wrote but didn’t mail: “My back is to the wall and has been to the wall for so long that the pressure of my back on the wall has started to crumble the plaster that covers the bricks and mortar.” A decade after his early triumphs with The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams wrestled with mounting depression, turbulent relationships, escalating dependence on drugs and alcohol, and criticism that his homosexuality had affected—infected, some thought—his talent. Writing had become a struggle. The recurrent themes of his work—lost youth, terror of madness and death, the memory and/or illusion of innocent love—became all the more immediate to him as he aged.

Alexandra Del Lago, the heroine of Sweet Bird of Youth, was inspired by Williams’s friend Tallulah Bankhead. But there’s much of Williams himself in her as well. A middle-aged movie actress, Alexandra is wracked by the fear that her talent has vanished along with her looks. Yet she can’t bring herself to exit gracefully. “You can’t retire with the out-crying heart of an artist still crying out,” she says, explaining her recent attempt at a screen comeback. Convinced that the movie will flop, she’s fled to a luxury hotel on the Gulf Coast in the company of Chance Wayne, a gigolo she picked up in Palm Beach.

Chance has got skills when it comes to pleasing older women. But to Alexandra’s surprise he’s also got a soul as troubled as her own. Like her, he’s obsessed with the loss of youth—his hair is thinning and his face is beginning to show signs of wear. He dreams of movie stardom and sees Alexandra as his ticket to Hollywood. But first he’s going back home to Saint Cloud, Florida, to find his childhood sweetheart, Heavenly Finley, the daughter of powerful politico Boss Finley. Chance and Heavenly lost their virginity to each other as teens, and Chance still clings to the memory of their romance. The relationship brought heavy consequences down on Heavenly, though, and Boss Finley orders that Chance be castrated—the same punishment his thugs visited on a local black man as a show of defiance against integration.

With such a plot, Sweet Bird of Youth might easily be played as melodrama. But Dale Calandra’s staging emphasizes the expressionist poetry of Williams’s vision. Rather than try to re-create a Florida hotel room, Calandra places the action on Mike Mroch’s minimalist white set. Jeff Glass’s shifting lights freeze moments in time, Adam Smith provides an evocative soundtrack of vintage jazz, and actors break the fourth wall, delivering key speeches directly to the audience. The effect is stylized and dreamlike, and we’re drawn into the characters’ inner lives. As Williams intended, Chance’s physical fate becomes less important than the spiritual transformation he undergoes as he accepts the death of his dream. In fact, this is the first version of the play I’ve seen that makes completely clear the reasons behind Chance’s self-sacrifice.

Yet the production crackles with sexual tension and wicked humor too, in the wonderful performances. Whiskey-voiced Kathy Scambiatterra melds comic outrageousness with sensitivity as Alexandra, who discovers a new humanity as her relationship with Chance evolves into compassionate friendship. At once attractive and repellent, Josh Odor’s physically graceful, slyly humorous Chance gradually reveals emotional depths that belie the stereotype of the heartless hustler. Elizabeth Argus as Heavenly and Kristin Collins as Boss Finley’s abused mistress, Miss Lucy, embody women who become complicit in their own victimization. And Frank Nall is genuinely creepy as evangelist-turned-politician Finley. Whether pretending to condemn racist violence while praising “the passion to protect the purity of our own blood” or bragging about his lucrative deals with big oil for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico (a startlingly timely reference), Nall’s Finley is the epitome of the corruption and hypocrisy Williams perceived in right-wing southern politics.

Written about five years earlier than Sweet Bird of Youth, the Pulitzer-winning Cat on a Hot Tin Roof also focuses on an aging stud haunted by the memory—or illusion—of a pure, youthful love. Onetime University of Mississippi football star Brick Pollitt drinks to numb himself against the disgust he feels for his wife, Margaret, aka Maggie the Cat. Over three acts, his profound alienation is gradually linked to the uncertain nature of his relationship with his dead best friend and teammate, Skipper. Were the men lovers? Was Skipper queer, even if Brick isn’t? Why did Skipper die so young?

Secret homosexuality isn’t quite the shocker now that it was in 1955. Yet when Brick recalls how he, Skipper, and their frat brothers at Ole Miss harassed a pledge for being “unnatural,” the connection to recent incidents in which gay baiting has led young people to commit suicide is all too resonant.

Set on the birthday of Brick’s rich father, “Big Daddy” Pollitt—who’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer but kept in the dark about it—Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, like Sweet Bird of Youth, invites soap opera treatment. But as Brick and Big Daddy struggle to share secrets of life and death, the play can take on an enormous power. And Michael Menendian’s solid, naturalistic Raven Theatre production rises to the occasion. The soul-baring conversation between Jason Huysman’s Brick and Jon Steinhagen’s Big Daddy develops a cathartic force as—backs against the wall—they say what they’ve never been able to say, and then say it over and over.