St. Augustine’s Limelight Theatre opened a polished revival of one of the better American plays of the past century on January 23, 2015, with “Sweet Bird of Youth,” by Tennessee Williams, which initially opened on Broadway in 1959.
Chance Wayne (Cory Billingsley), after a brief period of military duty, has become a drifter and gigolo, who depends on odd jobs and friendships with older women for support. However, he is not without ambition; he wants to be a film star. He has persuaded Alexandra (Beth Lambert), an aging and fading film star he met while working as a pool boy in California, to travel with him to St. Cloud, Florida, his hometown. She seeks solace in drugs, booze, and sexual intimacy with Chance. And while she doesn’t seem to take his clumsy attempt at blackmail seriously, she gives him money and a contract and promises to get him into films to keep him around.
Chance has other interests to attend to once back in St. Cloud; he wants to regain the love of Heavenly (Madi Mack), his girlfriend from his younger days. This does not sit well with politician Boss Finley (John Pope), who is a tyrannical demagogue. Chance has skipped town in the past, unknowingly leaving his daughter impregnated and with an infection that caused complications requiring surgery. Finley wants revenge, and his son Tom (Scott J. Smith) vows to run Chance out of town or kill him with the help of his friends Bud (Austin Moore) and Scotty (Micah Laird).
Chance’s Aunt Nonnie (Vanessa Warner) warns him to leave town, a warning reinforced by local businessman Hatcher (Lou Agresta) and Dr. Schudder (Michael Diamond), a physician who treated Heavenly in the past, and now plans to marry her.
As with all plays by Tennessee Williams, there are a number of interesting characters. The attractive Miss Lucy (Courtney Grile) has been the mistress of Finley for many years; he pays for the upscale hotel suite where she lives. Everette Street plays three cameo roles, of which the most dramatic is as a heckler during a racist political address by Finley in Act II. Rounding out the cast are Kyle Thompson as the hotel bellhop/page, and Evelyn Lynam and Daphne Moore cast as girlfriends of Finley’s minions and also as hotel maids.
“Sweet Bird” is a provocative character study. The performances by Beth Lambert and Cory Billingsley are sharply and creatively delineated and marvelously vivid. In the explosive opening scene, Ms. Lambert, who stalks around the stage like a cat, while reflecting on her life and career, drinking straight vodka, and popping pills, is emotionally and visually dazzling. Mr. Billingsley raises shiftlessness to an art form, but also lets us see the desperation of his current life and the bleakness of his uncertain future.
Williams liked to give his characters mini-monologues loaded with meaning, and in addition to those for the two leads, has given both Heavenly and Boss Finley language filled will undeniable power.
We will leave the play’s interesting conclusion for you to discover when you see it. if you can’t make it, then check out the excellent film version with Paul Newman and Geraldine Page, who also appeared on Broadway in the stage version for 375 performances.
The three scene settings by Designer Robert O’Leary are exceptional, with period furnishings. The stage was swiftly changed from a spacious hotel room, to an outdoor terrace, to a hotel cocktail lounge, and then back to the bedroom.
Butler Robertson’s costume designs captured the look of the 50s and Alexandra’s attire reflected her status as a glamorous, if fading, movie star.
While Director Gary Cadwallader’s full-time theatre position is that of Education Director for the Orlando Repertory Theatre, he has been a frequent guest director at Limelight and his staging is always notably authentic and appealing, as is the case with “Sweet Bird of Youth.” With his direction, this gem by Williams stays on course on the choppy seas of a challenging script; a well-staged and fast paced production.
North Florida Theatre fans are indeed blessed by access to excellent community theatres with the resources to tackle large-scale plays. The fine base of actors and technical staff in this area makes it possible to produce classic works like “Sweet Bird of Youth,” which requires a large cast. Because of casting costs, you probably won’t see this play done often by professional theatres. (Theatres will make exceptions if they can afford a star big enough to sell the show, as, for example, James Earl Jones in “You Can’t Take It with You,” which is currently running on Broadway).
“Sweet Bird” will be on the Matuza Main Stage, 11 Old Mission Ave, St. Augustine through February 15, call (904) 825-1164, or visit limelight-theatre.org for additional information and tickets.
By Tennessee Williams: Directed by Gary Cadwallader; Stage Manager, Micard Laid; Assistant Stage Manager, Daphne Moore; Properties Supervisor, Shelli Long; Set Designer, Robert O’Leary; Costume Designs, Butler Robertson and Alison Zador; Lighting Design, Carl Liberatore; Makeup Artist, Diane Maurno; Sound Booth and Spotlight Operator, Miles Mosher; Executive Director, Beth Lambert.