Tennessee Williams was obsessed with youth. In his play Sweet Bird of Youth, the two main characters desperately cling to memories of their pasts, each using the other in an effort to regain some semblance of their more attractive, younger selves. In Southern Rep's excellent production at Loyola University's Marquette Theatre, director Mel Cook intensifies the drama through unconventional casting.
When Sweet Bird of Youth opened on Broadway in 1959, audiences were shocked by its brazen depiction of a handsome gigolo traveling with a middle-aged movie star who is on the skids, by a Southern woman "spoiled" by venereal disease and by a self-righteous politician with a kept mistress. Cook upped the ante by casting a black man, Martin Bradford, as the ladies' man and failed actor Chance Wayne, and a black woman, Troi Bechet, as the politician's mistress, Miss Lucy. Boss Finley (Greg Baber) is running for office on a segregationist platform of "racial and sexual purity," so having his daughter mixed up with Wayne while he supports Miss Lucy in a fancy hotel suite elevates his hypocrisy more than Williams intended. The drama is set in the Deep South at a time when racial tensions were high. In 1955, Emmett Till, a black teenager, was murdered in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman.
Alexandra Del Lago (Leslie Castay), aka Princess Kosmonopolis, meets Wayne in Palm Beach and they drive her Cadillac to his hometown on the Gulf Coast. He hopes to make a triumphant return and see his former sweetheart Heavenly (Natalie Jones), Finley's daughter. Del Lago is overwrought, believing her latest film is a flop. "I knew in my heart that the legend of Alexandra Del Lago couldn't be separated from an appearance of youth," she says. "After that close-up, they gasped. People gasped."
Castay is a bit too refined in her portrayal of the sleazy alcoholic whose temporary amnesia prevents her from remembering who Wayne is or how she got there. She waffles between pitiful vamp and ruthless opportunist. Bradford seems to have channeled Paul Newman, particularly in the delivery of his lines. He desperately wants Del Lago to get him an acting contract, making love to her and recording their conversations with the intention of blackmailing her.
When Dr. George Scudder (Jason Dowies) arrives at the Royal Palms Hotel where Wayne and Del Lago are staying, he informs Wayne that he is going to marry Heavenly.
Boss Finley is contemptuous, epitomizing everything hateful about the Old South. He lords over Heavenly, commanding her to appear in a virginal white dress on his campaign stage to quell rumors. He'll reward her with a shopping spree at Maison Blanche if she does his bidding. Heavenly poignantly captures Williams' theme of lost innocence.
"Papa, you married for love, why wouldn't you let me do it, while I was still alive inside, and the boy still clean, still decent?"