The flame of youth burns hottest just before it dies, and everyone in range of Tennessee Williams’ heart-wrenching play “Sweet Bird of Youth” gets scorched. In Fortunato Pezzimenti’s sultry and doom-drenched production that opened Friday night in the Andrews Theater, that flame shoots bright and straight from the mouths of Aleks Malejs and Patrick Cameron. These two extraordinarily gifted performers play – and at points become – an addled and faded actress grasping at the imagined glory of her youth and a washed-up hometown hero desperately clinging to last days of his sexual prime.
It’s hard to settle on what’s saddest about the story. It could be the power of the human imagination to render one’s youth far better than it actually was. It could be the heartbreaking impossibility of reclaiming even a shred of one’s lost optimism and hope. Or, most likely, because this is Tennessee Williams, it could be each character’s grim realization that after tasting and losing success, the only solution is to quit while you’re ahead. Those infinite variations of sadness swim in Malejs’ eyes, hidden as her character would hide them behind a flimsy film of affected confidence. Her performance anchors and elevates the production and its performances. Each of them, from Cameron and his tortured Chance Wayne to Stan Klimecko’s despicable Boss Finley, build upon the baseline of intensity she sets.
As with any Williams play, there is an element of surrealism to the whole affair, as if we’re watching some strange dream. Kenneth Shaw’s simple set works well with Brian Milbrand’s mercifully unintrusive video projections, Tom Makar’s masterful sound design and Brian Cavanagh’s typically subtle lighting design to hint at the play’s semi-subconscious seetting. Pezzimenti’s direction strikes a delicate balance between the languid sensuality of Williams’ Southern setting and the manic regrets of his conflicted characters. Those two things, like Williams characters and himself, are always at odds, always irreconcilable and always beautiful.
“Sweet Bird of Youth” 3-1/2 stars (out of four)