Whether they illuminate or puzzle, director David Cromer's interpretations of classic plays always are eccentric, and his new version of Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth at the Goodman Theatre is no different. The result is vivid and intellectually clear, but also cold.
The play concerns rapidly aging gigolo Chance Wayne (Finn Wittrock), who returns to his Gulf Coast home town with Alexandra Del Lago (Diane Lane), an aging movie star with Hollywood clout.
As the play unfolds, Chance antagonizes almost everyone and then sacrifices himself — in a literal physical sense—as a form of purification and retribution when he realizes he has ruined the life of his one pure love, Heavenly (Kristina Johnson), the daughter of powerful political boss Tom Finley (John Judd).
Among the many reasons that Sweet Bird of Youth is less frequently produced than many of Williams' plays is that Chance is such an unlikeable hero. He is a self-destructive romantic who pours oil on the fires he lights -- a man of ample worldly experience who nonetheless remains naïve to common sense. And Wittrock has moments in which Chance's self-absorption and detached reality reach scary-but-riveting heights.
The equally sharp Lane (guided by Cromer) smartly underplays Del Lago without making her weak. The manipulative Wayne has met his match in this woman -- and she knows it before he does. Lane need not act the diva to make the point as "monster meets monster," as Del Lago puts it.
Cromer has made an adjustment to the act structure – moving Act II, Scene 2 to Act III – to illuminates the idea that everyone in Sweet Bird of Youth is a hypocrite. While Chance and Del Lago are outsiders who admit their hypocrisies; Boss Finley and other town insiders never will admit their hypocrisies and moral degeneracy. Cromer's division of scenes uses intermissions to separate outsiders and insiders with absolute clarity.
However, clarity ain't emotional warmth. The chill is amplified by James Schuette's mostly-white scenic design. Although airy (no solid walls), the large scale and classical forms of doorways and windows, coupled with a sweeping metallic cyclorama, suggest sepulchral marble. These characters are entombed.