With her most recent comeback picture apparently D.O.A., the mawkish but still well-heeled middle-aged actress-heroine of Tennessee Williams’ Southern gothic drama Sweet Bird of Youth (1959) flees before the reviews come out. She seeks solace with a youthful but already past-his-prime 29-year-old Palm Beach cabana boy, who definitely has a number of selfish and dishonorable motives for taking her to his hometown on the Gulf of Mexico, so he can dump her as his meal ticket and renew acquaintances with an old girlfriend.

Rapidly fading but still powerful silver-screen siren Alexandra Del Lago (played by Dorothy Brown in the current Theatre in the Park production), a.k.a. The Princess Kosmonopolis, and the feckless gigolo Chance Wayne (James Miller) have little in common except their narcissism, their inordinate fondness for vodka, and their appalling tendency toward self-dramatization and acting out in public. The third party in this sordid love triangle is the aptly named Heavenly Finley (Kendall Rileigh), the impressionable girl next-door whom Chance corrupted and left behind 10 years ago, so he could pursue an acting career that never quite panned out.

Chance Wayne only sticks with the panic-attack-prone Princess because she has the power to get him a Hollywood screen test. He is a truly nasty piece of work; and James Miller pulls no punches in making him a man the audience will love to hate. Dorothy Brown gives a passionate, but at times over-the-top performance as the high-strung, hard-drinking Alexandra Del Lago; and Kendall Rileigh is a lovely, sweet, sad picture of lost innocence as Heavenly Finley.

Phil Crone plays Heavenly’s irate father, local Democratic Party boss Tom “Boss” Finley, with just the right mixture of bluster and murderous malice toward minorities in general and Chance in particular. But Reid Dalton is a bit too nonchalant as Heavenly’s new beau, Dr. George Scudder.

Mariette Booth is a scandal, an absolute scandal, as the flirtatious Miss Lucy; and Byron Jennings II is right on the mark as the disdainful but ever-accommodating bellman Fly. The capable supporting cast also includes Ryan Brock as Tom Finley Jr., Joey Hilliard as Scotty, Eric Morales as Hatcher, Leah Moye as Edna, J.R. Richardson as The Heckler, Collette Rutherford as Violet, and Joseph Walter as Bud.

TIP guest director Tony Lea stages this lurid December-May/May-May romance with wit on a magnificent set by TIP resident scenery and lighting designer Stephen J. Larson. (Larson superbly recreates the interior of a posh Gulf Coast hotel room and a plush bar.) And TIP resident costume designer Shawn Stewart-Larson’s 1950s fashions are an eye-catching array of costumes from the period.

On opening night, June 11th, the show received a standing ovation at the final curtain. Although Sweet Bird of Youth will never provoke comparisons to The Glass Menagerie (1944) or A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) as one of Tennessee Williams’ finest plays, it is nevertheless an interesting drama of life and love in low places when increasingly desperate and no longer innocent lovers find that the sweet bird of their youth has flown away for good.

Theatre in the Park presents Sweet Bird of Youth 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/.