David Cromer Revels in Tennessee Williams' Basic Instincts for Sweet Bird Revival
By Mervyn Rothstein
The acclaimed director of Off-Broadway's Our Town and Tribes gives wing to Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
"As far as I'm concerned, he's what a playwright is," director David Cromer says. "What he writes about is, to me, what plays are about."
Cromer is talking about Tennessee Williams, whose 1959 play Sweet Bird of Youth is being directed by Cromer at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. It stars Diane Lane ("The Perfect Storm," "Unfaithful," "Under the Tuscan Sun") and Finn Wittrock, who played Happy to critical acclaim in the recent Death of a Salesman on Broadway.
Cromer, 48 this month, has been acclaimed for his Off-Broadway direction of Our Town and the current Tribes. He earned his first directorial kudos in his native Chicago, where he recently staged a praised revival of Rent.
Sweet Bird, he says, "is a play I've chased a long time. I first read it with an eye to directing it maybe 20 years ago." He had hoped to helm it on Broadway with Nicole Kidman and James Franco, but those plans collapsed. (The original starred Geraldine Page and Paul Newman.)
In the play, gigolo Chance Wayne (Wittrock) is back in his hometown of St. Cloud, Florida, with his lady friend, the down-on-her-luck actress Princess Kosmonopolis (born Alexandra Del Lago); he hopes to reunite with his childhood sweetheart, Heavenly Finley, whose corrupt politician father forced him to flee. Cromer says the play illustrates what to him is essential Williams — "our ability to embrace, indulge in and feel glory in our sexuality and also acknowledge simultaneously the things about it that cause shame or guilt or are dangerous. Plays need to be about our relationship to our basest instincts and our highest instincts — that's the struggle."
In A Streetcar Named Desire, Cromer says, Williams talks "about 'beauty of the mind, richness of the spirit,' and he'll also talk about brutal desire. There's our best self — our most controlled human self, our most refined self — and our basest self. Those exist simultaneously. Those are the things we struggle with as we relate to the world. Those are some of the most universal things we deal with all the time — that's what plays should be about."
In Sweet Bird, "Chance's relationship to Heavenly, the woman he loves, is described and experienced by all the characters who've been near it as something truly beautiful, truly innocent, truly thrilling. Chance, when he was very young, had a really pure love — I don't mean nonsexual, I mean pure sexuality and pure love. Over the years the ingredients of his life became distorted, based in disease. He has experienced the highest form of love and sex and the lowest imitation of love and sex — the high and the low, in one character's sex life."
Cromer is known for innovative directing — surprising takes on familiar plays, including real bacon, complete with sizzle and smell, cooking on a stove in the final act of Our Town. But he says he doesn't automatically seek to be different.
"It's important that directors be careful not to do this, because the minute you're saying, 'I have to put a spin on this,' you're not doing the play. You have to do the play first before you can do a variation. The goal is always to honor the fundamentals. In Our Town, Mrs. Webb, when she's serving her daughter bacon, says, 'Chew that bacon good an' slow.'"
That's why "there's bacon in that scene. It's an extension of what [Thornton] Wilder wrote."
Does he feel pressure to live up to his glowing reviews? Yes, he says, but that's good — it means he's experienced success. "I'm very lucky," he says, "that that expectation exists."
(This feature appears in the October 2012 subscription issue of Playbill magazine.)
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