Diane Lane and Finn Wittrock in Sweet Bird of Youth
Academy Award nominee Diane Lane hasn’t been seen on stage since a 1989 production of Twelfth Night (she played Olivia), so when it was announced that she would mark her theater return in David Cromer’s Sweet Bird of Youth at the Goodman Theatre, we knew we had to check her out while we had the chance. The play, written by Tennessee Williams, tells the story of drifter Chance Wayne (Finn Wittrock) returning to his hometown of St. Cloud with aging movie star Alexandra del Lago, a.k.a. the Princess Kosmonopolis (Lane) in tow. Chance is there to woo back the girl of his dreams, Heavenly Finley (Kristina Johnson) while the “princess” is escaping her downward-spiraling career. Culture editors Emmet Sullivan and Elly Fishman attended the premiere and chatted about their thoughts on the play. Sweet Bird runs through October 28, and tickets are available at the Goodman Theatre’s website. PLUS: Read editor-in-chief Beth Fenner’s take on the play.
Elly: So I couldn’t help thinking about Zac Efron in Charlie St. Cloud the whole time last night. Not that I ever saw that movie . . .
Emmet: Is it because they both are characters who live in the past? Or just the constant references to St. Cloud? And the constant Finn Wittrock shirtlessness….
Elly: Mostly the abs and the name. But thanks for delving into Efron’s character.
Emmet: Any time. But now that we’ve brought him up, let’s talk about Finn Wittrock (before we get to the big star of the whole thing). What did you think of our Chance Wayne?
Elly: I thought he pulled it off. I agree with Beth [Fenner, our editor-in-chief] that it took a while to warm to him, but by the end, I was convinced of his depravity and desperation.
Emmet: I agree. You never really felt for him until the end. Up until that point he was always just the swaggering drifter who didn’t care about what he did or whom he hurt. And how about the main star? Diane Lane as Alexandra del Lago?
Elly: AGH, I LOVED HER. I was expecting to, but she was amazing. Her character is by far the most fascinating and nuanced person in the play (I found). Or, perhaps just in this production because Lane really brought Alexandra to life.
Emmet: I think you’re right, although this production didn’t really allow for nuance with the other characters—besides Chance. Tom and Heavenly Finley, for instance, were pretty one-note, but they didn’t have much to work with.
Elly: My one gripe is that I didn’t learn much from the smaller characters. The play, to me, really seems to be a character study of the two main players.
Emmet: The minor characters, basically everyone except Chance and Alexandra, were undeveloped. But it was striking to see themes from 1959 (when the play was written) still resonate today. We still have politicians decrying the evil of female sexuality and aging movie stars who are desperate to come back.
Elly: Right. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lindsay_Lohan
Emmet: Ha! Perfect.
Elly: Well it just seems like the arc of stardom is so sudden and jolted with the Internet—there are so many new variations of fleeting celebrity. You’re an aged star by 16 if you’re that “Friday” chick.
Emmet: Right, if Chance Wayne were around today, he’d probably be on some reality show, not sleeping with a former star. Or maybe both.
Elly: Society is more desperate than ever to stay young. I’m only 24 and I felt anxious about aging.
Emmet: That’s why the second act was confusing to me. The overarching theme of the play is fading youth and beauty, but then there’s this b-storyline of Heavenly and her abortion that’s never really woven in.
Elly: Is it an abortion? I thought it was an STD.
Emmet: Hang on, you’re right, it was an STD. Although interestingly enough, [director] Richard Brooks apparently changed it from gonorrhea to an abortion for the film. I guess it made more sense for boy-next-door Paul Newman to accidentally impregnate someone than infect a girl with an STD. It makes Chance’s character more sympathetic.
Elly: That’s interesting. I mean either works to make the point.
Emmet: We’re spending a lot of time talking about the Heavenly/Chance story, but arguably, we shouldn’t be, right?
Elly: It’s not the main relationship. The play is really the two “monsters” of Chance and Alexandra and their selfishness.
Emmet: The fact that the entire first act took place between (pretty much) those two characters in a hotel room, and we were engaged throughout, is a credit to the job Diane Lane and Finn Wittrock did.
Elly: Yeah, and Diane Lane really brought it home in the third act.
Emmet: Speaking of, even though it didn’t get much play until the first part of the third act, the rotating stage was an interesting decision.
Elly: I really liked the set. It reminded me of Sarasota, Florida—a place with a 1950s, beach design (read: pastels).
Emmet: Right. Anything else you wanted to bring up?
Elly: It’s lonnng. Three hours.
Emmet: I’m still downing coffee this morning after our late night.
Elly: I’m going to go do that now!
Photograph: Liz Lauren