Elizabeth Ashley Muses About 'Sweet Bird of Youth'

Given the option of the seven-foot sofa or the chair with the ruptured upholstery, the reporter chooses the chair - a good call, because actress Elizabeth Ashley needs every inch of the couch to talk about her part in the Tennessee Williams classic "Sweet Bird of Youth."

She is supposed to be taking a break from rehearsal in the basement of Washington's Shakespeare Theatre, but her only concession to rest is to kick off the perilously high heels she wears during performances. As she talks, her legs fold and unfold, stretch, then implausibly wrap; shoulders rock, and arms take flight.

"It's hard to be an actor. Stage actors like me are off in a tiny room ... almost a public embarrassment to The Franchise, Show Biz. We're not part of the cult of celebrity; we don't get paid that way.

"We're not movie stars. We're not rock 'n' roll stars, and the only reason we're not on welfare or unemployment is that there are nonprofit regional theaters, and somebody has to do those parts," she says, then takes a breath.

"Walking and talking at the same time, remembering a whole lot at once, these are not skills that are valued very much anymore. They are antique skills, like bookbinders. I'm kind of like a bookbinder."

The role of faded movie queen Alexandra Del Lago is one of those parts made for a great lady of the stage. The character stumbles through most of the play with the assist of drugs, vodka, and whoever is close enough to pick her up off the floor. But she also needs the authority to fire off lines like, "My check-out time at any hotel in the world is when I want to check out."

Traveling as the Princess Kosmonopolis, the star is fleeing what she believes to be a disastrous comeback, "when I turned fool and came back." She winds up in a hotel somewhere along the Gulf Coast with a dubious companion who is attempting a comeback of his own. Chance Wayne, local golden boy gone bad, wants to recover his youth and lost love, Heavenly, but runs up against the girl's father, bigotry, and his own reckless past.

Ms. Ashley and Shakespeare Theatre artistic director Michael Kahn first talked about doing this play when they worked together on the 1975 revival of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Playwright Williams admired her "Maggie" and urged her to take on the older, even-more-tormented principal role in "Sweet Bird of Youth."

When it was first produced in 1959, the play's frank treatment of drug addiction, sexually transmitted disease, prostitution, and castration stunned audiences. Its deeper themes - time, corruption, the legend of youth - are clearer now that the novelty is gone.

"I told the cast the first day of rehearsal that this play will live better now, because it is no longer about being shocking. What it is really about is being an artist, being older in America, where you get to be thrown out pretty early. It's about art, failure, success, and age. It's also about what life is like without a spiritual element," says Mr. Kahn.

It's a very dark play from a very dark period in the playwright's life. Yet through all this darkness, there is some kind of redemption in this play, he says.

For the play to work, the audience has to care about deeply flawed characters without a happy ending to make it all pretty. It's a world where, in the words of a minor character, "God is silent," but the slightest touches of kindness, compassion, and hope roar.

Actor Michael Hayden, who plays Chance, says he always wanted to perform Williams because the language of his plays is so gorgeous. "He has a language all his own, the language of poetry, but it is all achingly real," he says.

This revival of "Sweet Bird of Youth" is a comeback that works. Performances run through July 19.

* Gail Chaddock's e-mail address is chaddockg@csps.com

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