Ashley Explores the 'Tragic Hungers' in Sweet Bird of Youth

Ashley Explores the 'Tragic Hungers' in Sweet Bird of Youth REGIONAL THEATRE -- July 1998

It sounds like a case of typecasting: Elizabeth Ashley, the siren of the 1960's who electrified audiences in the 70's with her Maggie the Cat in a Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof now playing the desperate, aging actress, Alexandra Del Lago, in the playwright's Sweet Bird of Youth.
Sweet Bird:  Elizabeth Ashley as Alexandra Del Lago
Sweet Bird: Elizabeth Ashley as Alexandra Del Lago (Photo by Photo by Carol Rosegg)

REGIONAL THEATRE -- July 1998

It sounds like a case of typecasting: Elizabeth Ashley, the siren of the 1960's who electrified audiences in the 70's with her Maggie the Cat in a Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof now playing the desperate, aging actress, Alexandra Del Lago, in the playwright's Sweet Bird of Youth.

"You have to be very careful about that," says the smoky-voiced actress warily. "I identify with all aspects of her. I don't think there's an actress over 50 or a woman over 40 who doesn't. But no matter how much of oneself one uses, one does not play oneself. That's a very thorny path loaded with canyons in which to fall splat."

Ashley has rarely fallen splat in her career, though she hints that all was not entirely well on her last foray onstage, touring in Full Gallop, the one-woman show on Diana Vreeland. "Now there was a part I had a hard time identifying with," she says. "I doubt I'll be doing that again any time soon." The production of Sweet Bird, which opened on June 1 and plays through July 19 (though talks are underway to extended to July 26) at The Shakespeare Theatre, reunites her with Michael Kahn, who directed her triumphant Maggie in the 1974 revival of Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

They had been wanting ever since to tackle another work of the great playwright together -- Ashley herself had gone on to star in productions of Williams's The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, Suddenly Last Summer and The Red Devil Battery Sign. And Kahn, who is the artistic director of the Shakespeare, said that "the passage of time" ripened Ashley's talents for the role. "And the passage of time is what the play is all about," said the director.

Ashley maintains that drama is in fact about what "all of Tenn's plays are about: salvation and apocalypse, that life and death deal, looking through the human heart, mind and soul for deeper truths." The salvation, for Alexandra del Lago and one suspects for Ashley as well, is that she is an artist: one who finds herself in a career crisis the jagged edges of which she blunts through the narcotic affects of hashish and the ministrations of her handsome gigolo, Chance Wayne. Wayne is portrayed here by Michael Hayden, who was the brilliant young Billy in Nicholas Hytner's Broadway revival of Carousel in 1992. "He's just brilliant. I've never seen a braver performance," says Ashley of her co-star.

"We are both monsters, people who are cruel to each other," she adds, regarding their respective characters, "but the difference between us is that out of the passion and torment of my existence, I have created something, art, a heroic sculpture. And he's just somebody who wants to be somebody." As such, adds Ashley, Sweet Bird of Youth is not only about Chance's tragic hungers but also he is a particularly good representative for today's bankrupt culture. "It's not about achieving anything," she says. "It's about what you want to be, and there is this vile trivialization of value. People just want to be famous even though everybody knows that fame in and of itself is just a two-dollar whore."

-- By Patrick Pacheco