This review of Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird Of Youth at The Gallery Players was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
Sweet Bird Of Youth
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Jesse Marchese
The Gallery Players
199 14th Street
Park Slope, New York 11215
I had the pleasure of attending Sweet Bird Of Youth at The Gallery Players in Brooklyn. They have a little bit of a gymnasium feel, but it is offset by charming decor, refreshments, and seating almost on top of the stage. The show was sold out and the crowd was lively during the intermissions and after the play.
Sweet Bird Of Youth, written in 1956 and first performed in 1959, was the last critically acclaimed play by Tennessee Williams before drugs and alcohol destroyed his productivity. He was considered among the three foremost playwrights in 20th-century American drama. When he wrote this play, Tennessee knew exactly what he was doing. Sweet Bird Of Youth showcased his skill delivering a masterclass in dialogue and story development. He used characters and actors to portray both simple and complex metaphors for both love and careers. The play is timeless except for a few dated jokes only some of the audience members caught.
Sweet Bird Of Youth at first glance and after the first act appears to be a play centered on the male lead, a young actor named Chance Wayne. However, he is used in contrast to the female lead, Alexandra Del Lago, an older female character. Tennessee wrote the play for Tallulah Bankhead, a close friend and one of the premier actresses on stage and screen during the 20th century. The genesis for the play was essentially a confession game in 1956 where she said, "I wish always, always, for death. I've always wanted death. Nothing else do I want more." In response, Tennessee threw in not so subtle lines in the first act for Alexandra Del Lago such as "It is not death, but life I wish for. Life." While Chance, a young hapless actor, appears to dominate the first act with his vitality and youth, the stage is set quite literally for Alexandra Del Lago, an older female star, to steal the show and at The Gallery Players on Saturday night, steal it she did. Nancy Rich played the part exceptionally and delivered captivating soliloquies and well-timed jokes that showed her blossom into vibrancy and life beside the devolution of Chance Wayne. Tennessee may have hoped to cast Tallulah in the lead role, but she never did appear. The female lead in 1959, Geraldine Page, won a Tony Award for her performance.
The devolution of Chance is the main plot driver of the play. Chance is a 29-year-old actor who never quite made it big and seeks to reunite with a lost love, Heavenly Finley, in his hometown of St. Cloud, Minnesota. Adam Fontana excelled in the role as Chance. He started out a little bumpy with delivering a southern accent, but in the end delivered it consistently and showcased his skill to emotionally deliver his lines. At the same time, the role may have originally been suited better for a Broadway actor nearing the end of his youth who viewed this part as his last chance to achieve something more. Researching this further, I discovered that this play originally starred a 34-yea-old Paul Newman (Cool Hand Luke & Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid) and launched him to his own historic film success. At the beginning, Chance brags and boasts about his upward career trajectory, parts played and hearts won, saying he even dropped out of the Navy to keep his path to stardom alive while he was young enough to become a star. This sparks a conversation between Chance and Alexandra about youth where Chance answers Alexandra's pining for lost youth, beauty, and glory days with the lines "nobody's young anymore" and "nobody grows old."
This begs us to ask the question, what is youth? A mindset or a time in life when a person was successful, young, and beautiful. The play consistently discusses virility and sexual ability as more obvious metaphors casting the young Heavenly Finley, Chance's one-time lover and current obsession, as a seemingly old woman after having a hysterectomy at age 27. However, Alexandra states early on that time does that to a woman too (Menopause) and yet that she still pines for the sexual satisfaction of a young man such as her current companion Chance Wayne.
More subtly, it seems Tennessee wants to contrast this typical vision of youth with how each character views their career. Each character worries that their career as an actor is over, but while Alexandra Del Lago speaks of diving into acting as an art, Chance Wayne speaks of getting his big break. She states that one "can't retire with the heart of an artist" while he parades a contract in front of his hometown friends. Much like Shakespeare had Hamlet give stage instructions, so too does Tennessee warn a young actor in Chance, through the voice of Alexandra, to devote himself entirely to his art and not to merely cling to the hope of making it big on one show. For example, Alexandra doesn't feel successful even after having performed on the biggest stages for years (without mass critical approval) while Chance feels successful after merely getting his first contract or appearing as a bystander. His main goal seems merely to be able to tout his "success" as an actor in front of his hometown peers who took steady jobs and earn a respectable living. In the end, he sacrifices a chance at his dream and loses his sexual ability through castration at the hand of Heavenly's brother, Tom Junior. While Chance's descent is completed, Alexandra completes her ascent by leaving St. Cloud to return to the glory of incomparable box office success.
Ultimately, the play delivered an entertaining spectacle. The actors and actresses performed their parts with emotion and passion. The play was funny, moving, and at times, unpredictable. Megan McDermott did a particularly wonderful job as Miss Lucy in the second act and I also really liked Benjamin Russell as Tom Junior. These characters appeared in the second act as obstacles to Chance Wayne resuming a life in his hometown. The actors all enunciated their lines well and their superior acting skills kept the full attention of the audience through three acts. Even when the lights fell on another part of the stage, they never took a moment off. I often wondered whether they would even take the time to blink. The Gallery Players did an awesome job on a well-written play. The only thing that surprised me is that we didn't at least give them a standing ovation as a courtesy for a job well done.
Sweet Bird Of Youth runs through March 26th at The Gallery Players in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Tickets cost $25.00 and can be purchased online at www.GalleryPlayers.com.
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