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Goodman Theatre’s ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’ takes flight


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Updated: September 21, 2012 12:07PM

“Of course, you were crowned with laurel in the beginning, your gold hair was wreathed with laurel, but the gold is thinning and the laurel has withered. Face it — pitiful monster. Of course, I know I’m one too. But one with a difference. Do you know what the difference is? I will tell you.”

— Alexandra Del Lago
(a k a Princess Kosmonopolis)
to Chance Wayne,
in “Sweet Bird of Youth”

Love, fame, beauty and youth. Unquestionably it is easier to catch a wind-swept cloud than to hold onto all those fleeting, ephemeral things that so frequently bring as much pain as pleasure.

Perhaps more than any other playwright, Tennessee Williams understood the compulsive quest for such gifts. He also had an uncanny sense of how some, driven by brute power, cruelty and envy, try to destroy those who, no matter how briefly, are able to possess them.

Consider Williams’ 1959 drama, “Sweet Bird of Youth,” now being revived at the Goodman Theatre in a production directed by David Cromer, with film star Diane Lane (“A Perfect Storm,” “Unfaithful,” “Under the Tuscan Sun,” “Secretariat”) as “Princess,” an aging film actress desperate for a comeback, and Finn Wittrock (who most recently appeared on Broadway as Happy in Mike Nichols’ revival of “Death of a Salesman”) as Chance, her gigolo, who seeks both a Hollywood career and the return of his true love, Heavenly, the daughter of a corrupt but powerful politician in a Gulf Coast town called St. Cloud.

Back in 2009, following the career-changing success of Cromer’s production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” I sat down with the New York-bound director for a chat and asked him what play, more than any other, he would want to direct. Without the slightest pause he said: “Sweet Bird of Youth.” Soon, a Broadway production starring Nicole Kidman and James Franco was being trumpeted, with Cromer at the helm. It never happened.

“Projects like that can just go away sometimes because of changes in schedules or priorities,” said Cromer. “It kind of disappeared, and I don’t think about it now because I’m so happy here. Broadway is not automatically ‘a better place’.”

“‘Sweet Bird’ is a hard play to do, but an interesting one,” said Cromer, 47, who has staged Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” (at Glencoe’s Writers’ Theatre) and “The Glass Menagerie” (at Kansas City Repertory). “For the first hour it’s an intimate two-character play. Then it moves to larger scenes. And finally it scales back down. I love that it keeps changing into something else, with crazily different proportions.”

“As for the real reason the play fascinates me — maybe it’s because it feels so epic and tragic and wonderfully noble, and because there also is something so tawdry about the setup of a wasted movie star and her young gigolo. I love the way Williams can drag the most tragic poetry out of such a situation. Plus, as its title suggests, this is a story about lost youth, getting old, death. Time only goes in one direction; it is the enemy. I love the line Princess says: ‘I wasn’t old; I just wasn’t young anymore’.”

And then there is the presence of Diane Lane.

“She is so lovely, and so willing to access the ugly part of Princess’ behavior,” said Cromer. “And when she and Finn [Wittrock] dig into it, you see two monsters in such pleasing forms. The whole first scene is a negotiation. There’s no sex because Chance is withholding it until he gets what he wants. And the argument gets so ugly, in a way that transcends their physical attractiveness and becomes brutal. But that’s what Williams can do: He can ennoble the base parts of us, and bring the other parts down to Earth.”

Cromer calls Williams “a very moral socialist who understood a general sense of politics and class consciousness, and who knew that everyone was negotiating in life, all the time, to gain power.”

Cromer’s choice of Lane, who he describes as “an actress with a career that demonstrates she’s in it for the long run,” was based more on their initial meeting than on having seen her films.

“In fact, it was her early work, in Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Rumble Fish’ [from 1983] — in which she had a relatively small role that made me think of Heavenly more than the Princess — that stuck with me, because it made me think this was Princess in her movie star heyday. And she was a little scary and tough, too, like Vivien Leigh — a great beauty with raw emotion that could be dangerous.”

Lane, who has not been onstage for 23 years, is anything but the diva when she arrives in the lounge of the Goodman for a chat. A petite woman, dressed in jeans, a gray T-shirt and sneakers, with wire-rim glasses on a face bearing no trace of makeup, she sips tea and picks at a plate of fruit while admitting her co-star is the latest “in a whole career of amazing men I’ve been lucky enough to work with.”

That list begins with Sir Laurence Olivier, who she starred opposite in “A Little Romance,” her 1978 film debut, in which she played a precocious 13-year-old American girl in Paris.

“I can’t really talk about the most shocking part of returning to the stage since we’re still in the rehearsal room,” said Lane, when we met a few weeks back. “But I’ve already learned this is an athletic experience and I can’t eat a big meal around show time. Theater is a more muscular exercise — dancing on a trapeze without a net. And of course there are no hidden mikes as there are on a film set, so you have to be bigger vocally.”

Lane grew up at the heart of the downtown New York theater scene where her father was an acting teacher and vocal coach, and where she began working as a child actress with the experimental La MaMa E.T.C. troupe.

“My dad taught acting alongside John Cassavetes in the late 1950s — coaching people like Bobby Darin and Jake LaMotta and others who weren’t in the Actors’ Studio, though Paul Newman dropped in from time to time. Had things been just a little different I might have been the daughter of Gena Rowlands [the actress married to Cassavetes], because there were many stolen girlfriends in those days.” (Lane’s mother, Colleen Farrington, “the daughter of a Pentecostal preacher,” was also a performer and model, but Lane was raised primarily by her dad.)

“I’ve discovered a great tenderness in my heart for Tennessee Williams — for his bravery in confronting himself and for asking us to confront ourselves,” said Lane. “There is such a relentless avidness in his characters who have shouldered great ambitions for their lives. And I see it as a cautionary tale about such a single-minded pursuit of success, how it can be the road to madness. It was a road Tennessee knew so well.”

The actress also sees an element of the ancient Greek tale of Oedipus in “Sweet Bird.”

“Princess never had children, and in some sense she is a mother falling in love with the son she never had,” said Lane, who has one biological, college-age daughter (from her first marriage to Christopher Lambert), and two step-children (from her marriage to actor Josh Brolin).

“There also is a predatory aspect to Princess’ marginalized sexuality, and that’s another reflection of Tennessee,” said the actress. “And of course there is the loss of beauty — something not really appreciated until it slips through your fingers, and then you must discover all sorts of compensatory qualities.”

Lane says she is “interested in the full palette of women’s experiences — representing women beyond their window of prime exploitation. Because life DOES get better, richer, more full of meaning. So there is a fair trade-off with looks.”

As to why she didn’t return to the stage sooner, Lane (who early in life considered studying law rather than continuing acting), confesses that “kids were a wonderful excuse to avoid it. But I did have the working mother’s guilt. I was 100 percent gone when I did a movie even though I was 100 percent at home when I wasn’t working.”

“Doing a play requires an immersion that is beyond explaining,” said Lane. “It involves the same level of obsession, control, hope and aspiration as parenting.”

For Wittrock, 27, moving from Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” to Williams’ “Sweet Bird of Youth” has been “both a shock and not a shock.”

“In a sense these playwrights are opposites who are writing about the same things,” said the darkly handsome and articulate actor, whose first encounter with Williams was at age 14, when he played a “no-necked monster” of a child in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

“Miller’s structure is so sound, so his play is a stable place to be as an actor,” said Wittrock. “Williams is more chaotic and passionate, and it’s the messiness that is fun and challenging, as well as his language, his brave lyricism, his poetry.”

Born in Lenox, Mass. (like Lane, his father is an actor and voice teacher), Wittrock graduated from Juilliard’s prestigious drama program, waited his fair share of tables, appeared in many Shakespeare plays and other classics, and, in 2009, created the role of Damon in TV’s “All My Children.” On the heels of his Broadway success, he might have headed to Hollywood to pursue film roles. (He has a small part in Darren Aronovsky’s upcoming “Noah.”) But as he put it, “‘Sweet Bird’ sort of chose me. And when I told my agent [that] Cromer was directing and Diane Lane was starring, the deal was sealed.”

Whether or not this “Sweet Bird of Youth” has a Broadway future, its major participants already have post-show plans. Cromer will head to Boston’s Huntington Theatre to reprise his production of “Our Town,” before heading back to New York to direct two new plays — “Really Really,” Paul Downs Colaizzo’s tale of undergrads in chaos, for Off Broadway’s MCC Theater, and Richard Nelson’s play about George Balanchine, Igor Stravinsky and Lincoln Kirstein, set for Lincoln Center Theater. As for Lane, she is more than happy to take up her husband’s suggestion for a vacation in Hawaii. And Wittrock wants to make the film he and a friend wrote about Navy Seals returning home and finding disillusionment.

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