Elizabeth Ashley’s passionate portrayal of the decaying film star Alexandra Del Lago highlights a masterful production of Tennessee Williams’ powerful “Sweet Bird of Youth” at D.C.’s Shakespeare Theater. Director Michael Kahn, reuniting with Ashley 23 years after their Broadway revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” has assembled a superb cast for this final production of the theater’s season. It includes an equally deft performance from Michael Hayden as the gigolo, Chance Wayne, whose pathetic disintegration helps define Williams’ treatise on social and moral decay. Hayden brings extraordinary depth and athleticism to the multitextured role of the dreamer whose imperial swagger dissolves into stumbling, drunken despair.
Williams’ play, with its semi-autobiographical themes, has drawn decidedly mixed opinions from critics and audiences since the play’s debut in 1959. It is not so much an examination of human frailties as a celebration of them. The tortured souls of St. Cloud, residents and interlopers alike, offer vivid portrayals of their character flaws as the drama unfolds.
The definition of venality in this loathsome ensemble is the bullying political tycoon Boss Finley. In David Sabin’s hands, he’s a living embodiment of greed and avarice as he hacks and wheezes his way to selfish pursuits. Clad in white suit with a paunch and crimson face, Sabin is a heart attack in motion — deliciously disgusting.
Other supporting performances are also sharp, including Elizabeth Sastre as the diseased daughter, Samuel Maupin as the conniving doctor, Nancy Robinette as the shallow and impressionable sister, Robin Moseley as the vengeful mistress and Willis Sparks as Finley’s vicious son, spoiling to castrate the man who violated his sister.
But this play really revolves around the film star, and Ashley makes the most of the meaty role from the moment she awakens from a drunken stupor, demanding vodka and oxygen, to her final triumphant sashay into a waiting car. In between is an absorbing look at one of the theater’s most self-destructive personalities.
Ashley’s aging movie queen is an enormously entertaining mixture of weakness, passion and aloofness as she reaches hungrily into her companion’s pajamas one minute and callously dismisses him the next. With her deep voice, purposeful stride and affected manner, she is in absolute control of Michael Yeargan’s classic seaside hotel bedroom set. Ashley and Hayden play brilliantly off each other.
Kahn’s direction makes the most of the multiple tensions built into the play. The effect is heightened by Howell Binkley’s varied lighting, especially the silhouettes, and Adam Wernick’s moody music.