Diane Lane delivers a superbly convincing performance as faded, drug-addled movie star Alexandra del Lago in a Chicago revival of Tennessee Williams’ 1959 drama “Sweet Bird of Youth.” This is a part that could easily go over the top, especially given that director David Cromer amps up the expressionistic elements of Williams’ dramaturgy. Lane unifies a scattered character at the semi-center of an imperfect but aching play about the tyranny of time. She’s vulnerable but steely, glamorous but grounded. Her portrayal takes her cue not from the character’s acknowledgment that she can be a monster, but from her insistence that she’s not a phony.
Finn Wittrock (Mike Nichols’ production of “Death of a Salesman”) plays the alluring gigolo Chance Wayne, who met the one-time movie star, traveling under the royal pseudonym Princess Kosmonopolis, at the Palm Beach hotel where he’d been working. He has brought her to his hometown along the Gulf Coast, planning an absurd scheme to enable his escape with one-time girlfriend and true love Heavenly (Kristina Johnson), daughter of the powerful politician Boss Finley (John Judd).
Almost 30, handsome and stung by years of missed opportunities, Chance knows whatever star-power he possesses won’t last long. Wittrock’s excellent perf makes it clear that he, and not the Princess, is the desperate one. You can tell by the fear he exhibits at the possible thinning of his hair, and by the fact that he still seems convinced he can have a happy ending.
Cromer continues to lay claim to being a foremost interpreter of mid-century American drama. As in his previous work, Cromer is a probing and sometimes thrilling problem-solver, willing to address the demands of odd individual moments as well as create a consistent world. He’s remarkably skillful here for most of the show, with the able assistance of set and costume designer James Schuette.
The hotel room of the first act is stunning and simple at the same time. In the second act, Schuette raises Boss Finley’s terrace several feet up from the stage floor, emphasizing that the preacher politician, played with overflowing energy by Judd, lives in a state of perpetual performance.
And in a ridiculously challenging scene to stage — one that must contain fluid scene fragments in a lobby-like hotel lounge, leading up to a visible but supposedly off-stage televised political rally — Cromer and Schuette put the set in rotating motion. It is awfully close to working brilliantly, but needs more time and perhaps a sightline adjustment or two to shed some awkwardness.
The most powerful visual moments are aided by projection designer Maya Ciarrocchi. And the most memorable comes early. As Lane looks out from the hotel’s French doors, her face is projected onto the lush white curtain that dominates the stage. It’s a moment of revived Hollywood glamor, made theatrical and poetic.