By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
With its undercurrent of racism, statutory rape and threatened castration, Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth is not a play for the meek. Set in the 1950s, it is a story of two desperate characters seeking salvation in the fictional town of St. Cloud, Mississippi.
The first is the drifter Chance Wayne (a riveting Santo Panzarella), who, despite warnings to the contrary chooses to return to his hometown, hoping to reclaim his lost youth and lost love. The second is fading movie star Alexandra Del Lago, masquerading as the Princess Kosmonopolis, a role exquisitely tendered by Rachel Whitman Groves in the current Tennessee Williams Theatre Company’s production. She is running away from the Hollywood grind and oppressive fame, while Chance is running towards celebrity and all its false trappings.
The two deliberately use each other. Chance uses his benefactress for what she can provide: a fancy car, expensive threads and her potential prestige and influence in Hollywood. On the other hand, Del Lago is so emotionally stunted by her last film experience that she has unwisely come to rely on Chance as her chauffeur, confidante and protector. While there are moments where the two do exchange words that suggest there is some symbiosis to their relationship, much of what we see is a parasitic infestation where the two mutually suck out the essential good found within them, leaving shattered shells of despondency.
As the Princess, Rachel Whitman Groves delivers a powerful performance. She portrays a high-strung, uncertain and frantic woman who is buoyed by drugs and propped up by an anxious and determined Chance. As she emerges from her stupor, she becomes stronger and more independent, but she holds onto him even as his flimsy machinations fall apart.
As the obsessed former hometown golden boy, Santo Panzarella portrays Chance magnificently. It is a difficult role that requires him to constantly pivot from one disappointment to another, yet the desperate hope he harbors in his heart never seems to diminish. In the end, though, he finds he cannot outfox or outlive time itself.
The dysfunctional nature of their relationship is at the very heart of Sweet Bird of Youth. Williams intends for the two of them to be codependent, feeding off each other’s strength, while attempting to improve their lot in life.
Doug Spearman helms this production as director and he does a splendid job in allowing the actors to plumb the depths of the characters presented by the playwright. He does not sanitize the parts of Williams’ work that might make all of us feel uncomfortable. This is a society of White privilege, where Blacks, like children, are best seen and not heard. A White man like Boss Finley is able to intimidate the masses through his henchmen and inflame the public through his rhetoric.
In truth, Boss Finley (John Wettermark) is a philandering hypocrite with a Black mistress, Miss Lucy, he denies knowing in polite company. Brandi-Rose Michael does a fine job of playing Miss Lucy, who recognizes his evil nature, but enjoys his largesse when he is in the proper mood.
Also playing opposite Wettermark is the object of Chase’s desire, Boss Finley’s daughter Heavenly. Betsy Holt is also quite remarkable in the few scenes her character is seen opposite Chase in a past memory or in the present in her ongoing struggle with her father. He holds Chase responsible for her ruination and there is little to be done to stop his promised attempt to right that wrong.
Another family member attempting to warn Chance of his impending danger is Aunt Nonnie, wonderfully played by Judy Lea Steele. While she has allegiance to the Finley family, she still regards Chance with some favor, especially knowing that his love affair with Heavenly, however ill-advised it was, was born out of their passions for one another.
The remaining cast of characters are for the most part members of the Finley family like Tom (Brandon Kotfila), a servant, Charles (Robert A. Mitchell), and various henchmen or sycophants of Boss Finley.
Away from his usual stint as the director of many of the company’s work, co-artistic director Augustin J. Correro serves as dramaturg on this production.
Nick Shackleford’s sound designs and musical underpinnings are exquisitely rendered in this production, which has a nostalgic, noir soundtrack running through it. Adachi Pimentel’s well-lit set did experience some challenges on the review night, but it was not enough to detract from the strong work of the actors on stage. Kelsey Brehm’s costumes were outstanding and the scenic design by Steve Schepker was up to his usual amazing talent, allowing for the Royal Palms Hotel bed that is central in the first act to be turned around and transformed into part of the hotel lounge in the second act.
Benjamin Dougherty does double duty working as Scotty, one of Finley’s underlings, on stage and as fight captain for the production.
While many of the darker issues brought up by Sweet Bird of Youth resonate to a specific time and place, there is a plethora of emotions between Chance and the Princess that remains timeless and universal. It is their relationship that forms the glue that binds all the other characters and, because of the strength of their performances, this production of Sweet Bird of Youth may well be the most satisfying and truthful to the esteemed playwright’s intent that has ever graced a New Orleans stage.
Sweet Bird of Youth by Tennessee Williams (2 hours and 40 minutes with a 20-minute intermission) is being produced by the Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans at the Marigny Opera House, 765 Ferdinand Street in New Orleans. The show runs nightly at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday through Sunday, August 10-13 and Thursday through Sunday, August 17-19. Tickets are available here.