By ALAN SMASON, Theatre Critic, WYES-TV (“Steppin’ Out“)
Sometimes a brave decision by a director or a dramaturg can enhance or expand the original intent of a playwright’s work. Blind color casting works in many instances for classic works by Shakespeare and Moliere, for example, because the color of the actor’s skin has nothing to do with the content of their character or their character’s motivation. Recently, Hamilton: An American Musical carried blind color casting to the opposite extreme, demanding that no white actors should be considered for their major roles with the exception of King George III . Reportedly, they have adjusted their philosophy and are willing to be more accepting in casting replacement roles.
On the other hand, the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization and the estates of George and Ira Gershwin have both insisted that when it came to Flower Drum Song and Porgy and Bess, respectively, only minorities or persons of color should play the roles to be cast. To cast opposite, they felt, would not be prudent and could ultimately deprive a minority from playing a minority role.
When British director and visiting Tulane professor Mel B. Cook was given the directorial nod for Southern Rep’s latest production, she followed her previous brave choices such as casting all women for her highly regarded student production of Julius Caesar last year. To direct a Williams play has been one of her life’s gals, she admits in the program notes. Yet, when she opted to cast the brilliant Martin “Bats” Bradford in the role of Chance Wayne, she took a leap with Tennessee Williams’ script in Sweet Bird of Youth that the author could not have foreseen, nor would ever have intended.
As Chance, Bradford plays opposite uber-talented Leslie Castay in the role of Alexandra Del Lago, the aging, faded former movie star, who holes up in the fictional town of St. Cloud hotel on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in a hotel one fine Easter morning. Set in the late 1950s or early 1960s (it was published in 1959), the historical backdrop of the time fixes us during the pre-Civil Rights era, a time of segregation when separate and unequal facilities was the rule.
How Chance could have attended a segregated white high school as a black student, been allowed to get within hand holding distance of Heavenly Finley (Natalie Jones) – or even closer (as Williams reveals in the second act) – been allowed to escape punishment previously at the hands of avowed segregationists and then permitted to check into the hotel with a white female, much less a movie star, all seem to be inconsequential details in Cook’s direction, given the backdrop of history.
Boss Finley (Greg Baber), Heavenly’s father, thoroughly dominates his daughter. Whether exacting revenge or politicking for white people’s rights at a rally, Boss offers no explanation of how Chance could have escaped the malevolent wrath of his castrating henchmen or even been allowed to live, particularly with the crime he is accused of perpetrating, besmirching the good name and stature of his beloved Heavenly.
Cook’s treatment of this script smacks of the same kind of mendacity that Williams used as the undercurrent of some of his famous plays like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie. There is a suspension of reality, which cannot easily be denied and deliberate falsehoods are being spread disguised as truth.
While it does set up a powerful example of hypocrisy in Boss Finley’s pursuit of Miss Lucy, also cast by an actor of color, the sexy Troi Bechet, the incongruity in the script proves too much to ignore. In effect, it casts an entirely different “complexion” (pun intended) on race in this play than Williams would have chosen and takes the action away from Chance’s interaction with Princess Kosmonoplis, the sobriquet by which Del Lago prefers to be known.
Were the audience to forgive the director for ignoring the obvious historical narrative, her other casting choices might then be termed as absolutely splendid.
Castay plays the aging doyenne superbly, a woman who knows she is being taken for a ride by a con man, but willingly allows it to happen. Her portrayal of this helpless and dependent creature, filled with self-doubt and fueled by pills and liquor, is among the best of roles Castay has turned in.
Bradford’s depiction of Chance as a nervous, frenetic and self-absorbed gigolo spinning out of control is also inspired. The only thing that gets in the way of a deeper appreciation of what he does on stage reflects back on Cook’s choice. But make no mistake about it. He plays the role of the well-endowed, braggadocious lover with a tenacious heart. The pain he experiences as hopelessness sets in the final scenes is almost palpable.
Baber plays a truly menacing figure, whose tactics send terror into his daughter’s heart, despite failing to register as a real danger to Bradford’s character of Chance Wayne. Jones displays fear of her father, but attempts to challenge his authority. In the end he intimidates her by threatening harm to Chance, for whom we can tell she still has feelings.
Bechet’s character sings several gospel numbers as an effective device to cover scene changes. That was one choice that Cook made that no one should question. Bechet’s expressive manner on stage as she tries to get Chance to get out of town and her deep-throated song stylings greatly enhance this production at the Marquette Theatre on the Loyola University campus.
Gavin Robinson turns in a great performance as Tom Finley Jr., who is charged by his father with exacting revenge on Chance in order to protect the family name and who intends to deprive him of his very last vestige of manhood.
Beverly Trask as Aunt Nonnie is also fine as a concerned member of the Finley family, who wants Chance to escape while he can.
Costumes by Cecile Casey Covert are outstanding, correctly capturing the spirit of the time, especially outfitting Castay with appropriate glamorous outfits that are just starting to look a bit threadbare.
The scenic design by Nicole Watts also involved some brave choices, including the use of sand as a device to express the passage of time. The sound design by Brendan Connelly was expressive and created an effective backdrop for the actors to play out their parts, while Mandi Wood also had impressive work as the lighting designer.
With the major exception of the aforementioned incongruous casting that just could not be ignored, the totality of Southern Rep’s production held in conjunction with the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival was that it was, otherwise, a good production. It’s just that in this case of Sweet Bird of Youth, it was one choice that couldn’t fly.
“Sweet Bird of Youth” by Tennessee Williams continues its Southern Rep run at Marquette Theatre on the Loyola University campus, 6363 St. Charles Avenue, through April 16. Evening performances are 8 p.m., while Sunday matinees are held at 2 p.m. For tickets call 504-6545 or click here.