Sweet Bird of Youth is another passionate, poetic drama by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams (1911-83). The current Theatre in the Park production, guest-directed by Tony Lea, will play June 11-26.

Lea says, “I’d heard of the play a long time ago, but I only read it when I heard that TIP was looking for a guest director.”

Sweet Bird of Youth opened at the Martin Beck Theatre on Broadway on March 10, 1959 and closed on Jan. 30, 1960, after 375 performances. It won the 1959 Theatre World Award for best play and received three 1960 Tony Award® nominations: for Best Direction of a Play (Elia Kazan), Best Actress in a Play (Geraldine Page), and Best Featured Actor in a Play (Rip Torn).

The Oscar-winning 1962 feature-film version of Sweet Bird of Youth, directed by Richard Brooks, featured a screenplay by Tennessee Williams and Brooks. Ed Begley won the Academy Award® for Best Actor in a Supporting Role; and Geraldine Page and Shirley Knight received Oscar nominations for Best Actress in a Leading Role and Best Actress in a Supporting Role, respectively.

Tony Lea says, “Sweet Bird of Youth speaks to me about many themes that resonate more and more as I get older; among them, the dreams and vitality of youth, the possibility of redemption, and the fragile connections between people.”

He adds, “Sweet Bird of Youth‘s two central characters are The Princess (Dorothy Brown), an aging motion picture actress in flight from her latest screen disaster, and Chance Wayne (James Miller), a not-so-young hustler whom she has picked up. Taking advantage of her drunkenness and his good looks and relative youth, he manages to lure her to the southern town of his birth in order to be reunited with his childhood sweetheart Heavenly (Kendall Rileigh), who he still loves.”

Lea says, “Word of [Chance’s] arrival spreads quickly through the small town. Boss Tom Finley (Phil Crone), father of Heavenly and her brother Tom Jr. (Ryan Brock), are especially interested. Unknown to Chance, he has unwittingly infected the girl with a sexual disease that has resulted in her suffering a hysterectomy at a very young age. Ever since, the Boss and Tom Jr. have been waiting for Chance to return so they may take their revenge.”

Lea says, “Chance’s scheme is to use the Princess to promote a motion picture career for himself and his girl. As his scheme falls apart, Chance realizes that he has been deserted by everyone and everything, including his youth, except for the avengers lying in wait for him.”

Tony Lea admits, “Sweet Bird of Youth is the largest production I have attempted to direct in terms of sheer size. A cast of 15, myriad demands of set, lighting, and costumes and the poetry of Tennessee Williams make this a creative challenge of the highest order.”

He adds, “The most important aspect of mounting this production is to tell the story while weaving in the poetry and abstract nature of the words and images that Tennessee Williams has created. The challenge to the cast and creative team is to blend these characters, images, and words into a mix that not only tells the story but also does justice to the world of the play and still makes the characters recognizable as people. The cast and crew are outstanding and uniquely suited to reaching for these goals.”

Besides director Tony Lea, the current TIP creative team includes TIP resident set and lighting designer Steve Larson and costume designer Shawn Stewart-Larson.

Lea says, “The action of the play takes place in three acts, the first and third in a suite at the Royal Palms Hotel in St. Cloud and the second in the bar/lounge of the hotel. The set is a multi-layered, open representation of both spaces. Steve Larson has done an amazing job of evoking the period and the mood of the place and time, 1959, on the Gulf coast of Florida. The walls are see-through and reinforce the ethereal nature of the setting.”

He adds, “There are a lot of lighting effects that help to create the mood and shape the audiences perception of the action that is taking place.” And Lea says, “The costumes are very evocative of the period, which we have not changed.”

Theatre in the Park presents Sweet Bird of Youth Friday-Saturday, June 11-12, at 8 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, June 17-19 and 24-26, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, June 20 and 27, at 3 p.m. at TIP, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. $12-$18. 919/831-6058. Note 1: The June 17th performance will be audio described. Note 2: Cream & Bean will sell ice cream in the garden outside TIP (or in the lobby if it rains) after the June 20th and 27th performances. Theatre In The Park: http://theatreinthepark.com/2003-04_productions/sweet_bird/sweet_bird.htm [inactive 11/04]. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=8455. Internet Movie Database (1962 Film): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056541/.