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Tennessee Williams’s 1959 melodrama about an aging female movie star and the young gigolo whose services she’s retained—or is that the other way around?—remains an oddly constructed work. Even the playwright’s loyalties to his own characters seem less clear than in earlier, better plays such as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Director David Cromer’s vision for Sweet Bird found a home at the Goodman after a previously announced Broadway revival fell through. His production gives a false first impression of failing to solve Williams’s puzzle, despite strong work from leads Diane Lane and Finn Wittrock and a couple of visual surprises that match the playwright’s flights of lyricism.
But Cromer has a few cards up his sleeve yet. The tête-à-tête between Lane’s Alexandra Del Lago and Wittrock’s Chance Wayne in the first act, along with the brief second act’s setup of Wayne’s Gulf Coast background, mislead us into nearly dismissing the work as part of Williams’s lesser histrionics.
Yet with eerie, atmospheric work by his designers, James Schuette (set and costumes), Keith Parham (lighting) and Maya Ciarrocchi (projections), Cromer’s harrowingly staged third act invokes a stark sense of inescapable inevitabilities: the march of time, the specter of missed chances and the churning whirlpool of forces larger than individual willpower. Lane’s luminous, mesmerizing Del Lago finds her escape from Wayne’s world with an assist from outside influences, while Wittrock’s Wayne brings us with him to his final fate. Strong supporting work by Chicago actors John Judd, Colm O’Reilly and Jennifer Engstrom help give Cromer’s Bird its wings.