WILLIAMSTOWN -- Well, we're going to have to pull out all the adjectives for this one. Brilliant. Splendid. Superb. Magnificent. Amazing. Just about flawless in every way.
Sometimes a company does a strong play weakly; sometimes it's a weak play strongly. Sometimes everything almost falls into place, but one off-key performance knocks the whole show out of whack. And then sometimes the stars align, and we get a production like David Jones's ``Sweet Bird of Youth" at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, in which every single thing just . . . works.
With legendary performances by Geraldine Page, Paul Newman, and Rip Torn, ``Sweet Bird" opened on Broadway in 1959 and ran for nearly a year. Posterity has not placed it on the top shelf of the Tennessee Williams canon. In Williamstown, however, Jones and his uniformly excellent cast make an irresistible case for revisiting this fierce, lyrical, stylistically inventive exploration of some of the playwright's most enduring themes: the wreck of beauty, the sinking of youthful promise, the implacably advancing tide of time.
As Chance Wayne, chased back to his Mississippi birthplace by his shame at failing in Hollywood and his longing for the young love he destroyed, Derek Cecil does not have the chiseled Olympian beauty of the young Newman. But he has something just as interesting: a foxlike intensity, a hunger for glamour so strong that it takes on a weird beauty all its own. Cecil's Chance has gotten by on his looks, but not because they're perfect; it's because he's willed everyone around him to find him more magnetic than he is. It's a completely committed, relentless performance that exhausts and exhilarates both actor and audience.
He's matched by Margaret Colin's ferocious, funny, and terrifyingly human rendering of Alexandra Del Lago, the no-longer-young film star traveling incognito as the Princess Kosmonopolis. Her dance of mutual manipulation and deceit with Chance, each trying to use the other to prop up a swiftly dying sense of charisma and power, unspools like a breathtaking, fatally perfect tango.
These two ``monsters," as the Princess rightly calls them, are surrounded by a veritable menagerie of Southern Gothic gargoyles and fallen angels, every one perfectly cast. Bess Wohl as the damaged young lover, Heavenly, hard and fragile as glass; Gerry Bamman as her wily terrapin of a father, Boss Finley; Christopher Evan Welch, casually vicious as her pudgy, bullying brother, Tom Jr.; note-perfect Beth Fowler and Betsy Aidem in two small but vital roles -- all of them, along with a large ensemble, give us these characters so vividly and truthfully that it's hard to imagine seeing them any other way.
Derek McLane's ghostly set, a delicate background screen of tall windows and slatted shades that evokes the faded mystique of the Royal Palms Hotel without using so much as a single frond, deepens and extends this remarkable realization of Williams's dreamlike world. So do David Weiner's drowsy Gulf Coast lighting, Ilona Somogyi's impeccably suitable costumes, and, hovering always in the background with exactly the note of lament Williams called for, the haunting sounds provided by John Gromada.
Bravo, all. And bravo, especially, to director Jones and Williamstown artistic director Roger Rees, for casting whatever spells it took to make this magic work.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.