By BOB FELDHEIM
One of America’s great playwrights of the 20th Century, Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams III (1911-1983) focused on the depths and origins of human feelings and motivations.
Elia Kazan, who directed many of Williams’ greatest successes, said of him, “Everything in his life is in his plays, and everything in his plays is in his life.”
And what a difficult, complex, challenging life it was. He confessed that he “found it easier to identify with the characters who verge upon hysteria, who were frightened of life, who were desperate to reach out to another person …”
“Sweet Bird of Youth, currently onstage at the Limelight through February 15,” was one of the last of Williams’ eight great dramas (some say it was his greatest).
Written in 1959, it followed “The Glass Menagerie” (1944); “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947); ” Summer and Smoke” (1948); “The Rose Tattoo” (1951; “Cat On a Hot Tin Roof” (1955); and “Orpheus Descending” (1957). He wrote “The Night of the Iguana” in 1961. and also several dozen ‘smaller,’ unsuccessful plays, two novels and many stories.
The Broadway play and the 1962 movie were both directed by Elia Kazan. Geraldine Page starred as the decaying, besotted movie queen Alexandra Del Lago. She likes men’s bodies to be hairless, silky, smooth gold. Paul Newman co-starred as Chance Wayne, her immature, brassy, terrified, unscrupulous gigolo companion, who “used love like most men use money.”
The 1989 made-for-TV movie starred Elizabeth Taylor and Mark Harmon.
The script is intense. Williams went into excruciating detail on how each character was to be costumed, and their movements. Page-long soliloquies appear regularly throughout the script, distinguished by the playwright’s gorgeous lyricism.
He also goes to great lengths describing every design detail of every scene, every prop, as they should appear. The play runs a bit more than 2-1/2 hours, and calls for a cast of 16.
Is it any wonder that this play is not one of the most popular among community theatre artistic and executive directors? But let’s hear it for our own Limelight Theatre, whose Executive Director Beth Lambert, and Board of Directors, led by Scott Bartosch, took the bit in their teeth and signed on.
The first order of business was selecting a capable director, one who wouldn’t flinch from the challenge. Gary Cadwallader immediately came to mind. (His voluminous credentials are summarized in the show playbill.)
Here’s who Gary has cast:
Starring as Alexandra is Beth Lambert herself, under a breathtaking coiffure of black tresses. I believe this is her first dramatic lead after countless appearances over the years in comedic supporting roles. What a job she does — at once sexy, proud, demanding, reeling drunk, lamenting that the legend of movie star Alexandra Del Lago couldn’t be separated from youth.
Cory Billingsley is Chance. His Paul Newman-like build, features and charisma make him a natural for the part. He’s totally believable as a 29-year old hustler driven to recapture his youth by being with the love of his life.
John Pope, last seen here as the lead in “Other Desert Cities,” is Boss Tom Finley, an unscrupulous, corrupt, ruthless Southern political despot, intent on punishing Chance for daring to return.
Courtney Grile, seductively gowned in a red strapless, is Miss Lucy, Boss Finley’s long-time cynical mistress.
Madi Mack is Heavenly, the object of Chance’s affection, the reason he’s returned after 12 years. She was only 15 when Chance took advantage of her love, with dire consequences. She also happens to be Boss Finley’s daughter.
Scott Smith is Tom Junior, Boss Finley’s son. He’s going to make Chance regret he ever returned.
Vanessa Warner is Aunt Nonnie. Lou Agresta is Hatcher, Everette Street is the Heckler.
Also in the cast, Evelyn Lynam ; Daphne Moore; Austin Moore; Chase Lawless; Michael Diamond; Micah Laird; and Kyle Thompson.
This review would be incomplete without acknowledging the brilliance of the set — designed by Robert O’Leary, continuing the incredibly high standards set by Tom Fallon, and constructed by Domenic and Nancy Grasso and their crews. Broadway theatre quality, no doubt, to meet Tennessee Williams’ exacting requirements.
A sensual, haunting portrait of corruption and evil, “Sweet Bird of Youth” will captivate and seduce you.
The show runs each week through Feb. 15. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, with 2 p.m. matinees each Sunday. For reservations, call 904-825-1164 or go to limelight-theatre.org to purchase tickets online.