Well, it’s official: 40 is the new 30 (or even the new 20 according to some sources) since people live longer and look better than they did decades ago when Tennessee Williams penned Sweet Bird of Youth, which enjoys its final performance tonight, after an extended run at Goodman Theatre.
Directed by Chicago native David Cromer, the production itself echos the plot: a movie star comes to a second city town with a handsome man who has aspirations of stardom though he lacks real acting chops. To be more specific, Finn Wittrock plays drifter Chance Wayne who returns to his hometown of St. Cloud, Florida with Alexandra del Lago, an aging screen siren played by Academy Award nominee Diane Lane.
At 29, Chance is on the brink of decay; his 27-year-old high school sweetheart Heavenly (Kristina Johnson) is an old maid; and the act of sexually servicing middle-aged Alexandra is akin to castration and death. That’s because the work was written in 1959 when MILF wasn’t a word and cougars were found in zoos.
By today’s standards, any young man lucky enough to score with someone who looks like the 47-year-old Lane would run from her bed, not in shame, but in haste to tell all his friends. Consequently, the play’s fear-of-aging theme may have had greater impact if older actors were cast.
This is not to discredit Lane whose first-rate performance will no doubt have pleased her fans as well as added new ones to her following. Like John Judd (Boss Finley) and Jennifer Engstrom (Miss Lucy), Lane delivers an engaging portrayal laced with depth and topped with humor and charm. Working outside of her cinematic comfort zone, the film star shows her range and proves her merit as a strong and radiant actress, transcending the obstacles of acting with a weak leading man on an overpowering set.
While designer James Schuette’s costumes are vibrant and flattering to the cast, his mammoth scale bedroom set swallows the actors up in the first act. The second act’s porch setting is too elaborate to justify the extra intermission needed to install it. And the third act’s rotating bar, which moves at arbitrary points during the dialogue, begins to feel more like the revolving lounge at Circus Circus in Vegas than a swanky place in St. Cloud. Fortunately the various screen projections by Maya Ciarrocchi allow audiences to connect with the story via character close-ups.
Despite the play being rightly set as a period piece, it’s difficult for the dated material to translate to contemporary audiences since it’s no longer taboo for a younger man to be on the arm of an older woman. Ironically, the play’s nonchalant exchange between Chance and Aunt Nonnie (Penny Slusher) seems more shocking. As the two reminisce about the time she enabled Chance to deflower her 15-year-old niece, it becomes very clear societal standards have shifted regarding the appropriate age of sexual partners.
Here, the production inadvertently stumbles on what could have made the play more relevant. But successfully conveying a fresh spin on past work is a challenge—especially when it’s one of the playwright’s lesser works. Perhaps that’s why Calixto Bieito’s updated adaptation of Camino Real, which was staged at Goodman in March of this year, went to the extreme with shock tactics. To be sure, Cromer’s production is more subdued and way more entertaining yet it ultimately fails to resonate with 21st century audiences, perhaps proving Sweet Bird of Youth is past its prime.