There is only one truly gripping scene in this new production of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth. It comes at the end of the second act, as Boss Finley addresses a TV audience while his cohorts beat a heckler to death and Chance Wayne, watching the speech on TV, begins to fall apart. It is incredibly effective in its use of space, lighting and acting.
The rest of the play, alas, cannot hold up to that scene, though a few moments come close. Most of those moments involve David Donahoe as Boss Finley, or Timothy Weinert, who, as his son, is brilliantly torn between anger and stupidity (he’s also one of the few with a convincing accent).
The story is a familiar one to audiences and a daunting one to actors. Chance Wayne, a gigolo traveling with a faded movie star, tries to convince her to get him and his old girlfriend, Heavenly, into the movies. Meanwhile, the girl is destroyed from her last encounter with Chance, and her father is out for blood.
As Chance, Eric Watson Williams has his moments, but just as often he seems to be reading his lines as though he doesn’t know what they mean. Joanna Bayless, as the star, suffers from the same habit but is completely believable in the play’s crucial final scene.
The biggest problem is Heavenly. As played by Shelley Virginia, you never believe she is someone for whom Chance (or anyone) would be so willing to suffer. Granted, the character is barely alive, but there’s no suggestion of the complexity that Shirley Knight brought to the role way back when.
This is hardly the best production of Sweet Bird you’ll see, but there are still several moments when everything clicks and you can feel the power of one of the greatest of all American plays.