Derek Cecil and Margaret Colin
in Sweet Bird of Youth

(Photo © Allison Leger)
Derek Cecil and Margaret Colin
in Sweet Bird of Youth
(Photo © Allison Leger)
You've got to hand it to Derek Cecil: When he makes an actorly "choice," he sticks with it. In the Williamstown Theatre Festival's otherwise successful staging of Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth, Cecil has curiously opted to portray Chance Wayne, that archetypal hustler whose main chance resides in his raw animal magnetism, as a whiny, insecure loser from the get-go. The whole pathos of the play lies in Wayne's gradual realization, at the worldly-wise age of 29, that he'll never live up to his adolescent aspirations -- whether show-biz success or a romantic reunion with Heavenly Finley (Bess Wohl), the tarnished dream girl of his teens. A gradual peeling away of self-delusion makes for prime Williams drama, whereas the violent comeuppance of a conniving, dim-witted jerk comes nowhere close.

Cecil boxes himself in, contorting his perfectly presentable physique into a cowed position and pitching his voice way upward into Barney Fife territory. (Heaven knows what this Wayne will sound like once Boss Tweed's goons have their way with him!) He leaves himself no place to go -- except maybe, late in the game, into a further blur of drunkenness. One can only wonder what the washed-up actress Alexandra del Lago (Margaret Colin) sees in such an ineffectual dweeb, beyond his merely satisfactory services in the sack. Sure, Alexandra is drug-addled, but Colin convinces us that her attraction to and empathy for Wayne are genuine. Cecil's less than prepossessing interpretation -- surely approved, tacitly or otherwise, by director David Jones -- puts Williams' text to the test. Potboiler plot notwithstanding, it holds up surprisingly well.

Credit is due the rest of the cast, who compensate for the mystifying vacuum at the core. Colin perfectly captures the inner grit of the self-described "monster" Alexandra. She does a star turn without seeming to suck up the spotlight, though lighting designer David Weiner does have an intrusive way of illuminating her monologues (here bracketed as asides to the audience) and other key moments. Gerry Bamman is magnificent as the ranting, ruthless Southern demagogue Boss Finley, and not just because of his uncanny resemblance to a baleful American eagle. His take works because Bamman -- like Colin, Wohl, and Christopher Evan Welch as bully-in-training Tom Finley, Jr. (shades of Dubya, anyone?) -- withstands the temptation to treat his character as a caricature. He believes in Boss Finley and his patently warped worldview. As a result, so do we.

Sweet Bird of Youth is among the canon of Williams' hothouse dramas, in which repressed sexuality ultimately outs with disastrous consequences all around. The play has an aura of hysteria which, in these supposedly more enlightened times, can sometimes read as overwrought -- a pitfall that this production deftly skirts. This subset of Williams' oeuvre fell out of favor amidst the sexual revolution, with its attendant candor. Now that this phenomenon has subsided and its much-vaunted gains have proved illusory, Williams' insights into the nature of human longing once again seem timely, even timeless.

Could that have been Cecil's intent? Take away the preening, insolent hunk or prematurely cut him down to size and this inverted morality tale still manages to rivet our attention from word one. But it would be all the more moving if we got at least an initial glimpse of Chance -- a sullied Christ figure, the bearer and embodiment of our own youthful dreams -- while he was still flying high.