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Here's What Happened

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Often in the middle of a well-known Shakespearean classic, I am suddenly jolted by a speech or a scene I had completely forgotten. Let us mercifully put aside the problem of "senior moments" and look for other causes. The very richness of Shakespeare is an obvious place to start. But there is also the question of cutting. Productions of the Bard are usually custom designed by the director -- and so, speeches and scenes appear and disappear like sandbars in the Mississippi.

Where Shakespeare varies because of the director, Tennessee Williams varies because of the nature of the playwright himself. His canon is Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle applied to the stage: you cannot know the true, definitive version because the true, definitive version is unknowable.

Part of Williams' genius had to do with an inexhaustible profusion of approaches toward a single intuited mood or world or set of characters. A final, ultimate un-improvable version was, no doubt, the goal of this quest. But the nature of the quest made the realization of this goal nearly impossible.

In my paperback version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, there are two separate endings: one performed on Broadway (apparently due to the pressure of director Elia Kazan) and one that the playwright himself preferred.

Summer and Smoke reemerged, after it had gone into rehearsals for its Broadway opening, as Eccentricities of a Nightingale. Seeing the two plays is like having a recurring dream.

While watching Sweet Bird of Youth at Le Petit, I had one of those Heisenberg moments. Chance Wayne, once a young man of great promise, now an alcoholic gigolo, has returned to his hometown at the age of 29 to regain his high school sweetheart. Heavenly (the sweetheart) has given up on Chance and refuses to see him. What happened?

That precise phrase ("What happened?") is, in fact, where I got my jolt. For Chance repeats it over and over (and over!) during a phone conversation in which Heavenly explains what happened. But I didn't remember any phone conversation. And I discovered, when I got home, the scene is not in my New Directions paperback at all. In the version I have, Heavenly never tells Chance what happened. Her brother tells him. In person. And what happened is an entirely different matter from Heavenly's account.

In this version of Sweet Bird of Youth, currently taking flight at Le Petit, director Ryan Rilette puts the focus clearly on Chance and the dead end of his hopes. His castration is the physical symbol of his own loss of fructifying and regenerative powers. He is an un-hero, a Jason who not only never acquired the golden fleece, but never quite managed to launch the expedition. In the end, he is pitiful.

Scott Screws gives us the believable and disturbing vision of a handsome, weak, dissipated young man, trying desperately to recapture the easy triumphs of his earlier days. By the end of the play, this Chance is so besotted by drugs and alcohol, he has become somewhat repellent. The rot and the gutter, so often spoken about, take on a palpable, almost aromatic reality.

As that delicious and extravagant monster, Alexandra de Lago, Francine Segal lets us see the iron fist of will barely concealed within the velvet glove of negligent sensuality. This complex creature can use others, while seeming to be used by them. She has an astonishing resilience, based on discipline and hard-won achievement. Nonetheless, she suffers a sort of cold-eyed sympathy with the damaged souls of the world.

George Sanchez is a chilling Boss Finley, a shrewd cracker politico with the ethics of Machiavelli and manners of Genghis Khan. Ashley Nolan creates a winsome and touchingly sincere Heavenly.

Some of the bright spots of the production come in supporting roles. Abby Lake's aunt Nonnie is wary of, but not cowed by her formidable brother-in-law. Troi Bechet gives us a simpatico and delightful Miss Lucy. Christopher Lee, Steve Zissis, Kim Collins, Christian Middleton and Ben Clement turn in assured performances. Ryan Reinike, Abdullah Muhammad, Veronica Oliver and Genevieve Hardison bring to their smaller parts a naturalness that gives the overall world a convincing solidity.

David Korins' set and Bill Liotta's lighting and sound are effective -- particularly the back-projected shadow of Boss Finley, when he gives his televised speech (though I have reservations about the coup de foudre scarlet flash when the lovers come face to face).

Another note of interest about this production is the abundance of new faces. Director Rilette and leading man Screws are both making their New Orleans debuts, while Lee, Reinike, Middleton and Zissis are younger actors we've seen and admired in less-august surroundings. For Le Petit, this is a Sweet Bird of Youth in more ways than one.

Scott Screws' borderline repellant Chance Wayne clashes with Francine Segal's extravagant monster Alexandra del Lago in Le Petit's production of Sweet Bird of Youth.
  • Scott Screws' borderline repellant Chance Wayne clashes with Francine Segal's extravagant monster Alexandra del Lago in Le Petit's production of Sweet Bird of Youth.

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