"When monster meets monster, one monster has to give way," says the ravaged, washed-up film star Alexandra Del Lago to Chance, the younger man with whom she is having an unholy sexual relationship. In "Sweet Bird of Youth," Tennessee Williams shows these two monstrous misfits also to be vulnerable, exotic fish in a sea full of piranha. You want them to swim to safety even as you know destruction is imminent.
Williams, never shy of overstatement, named his "hero" Chance Wayne (whose chances, indeed, are on the wane) and Chance's long-lost young love, Heavenly. Heavenly lives in St. Cloud, a small Southern town that is in fact a stinking den of corruption into which Chance has dragged his fading movie-star companion. He foolishly hopes to set things right with Heavenly. In a new production at the outdoor Theatricum Botanicum, director Heidi Helen Davis enjoys wallowing in the excesses of this voluptuous drama, with results both fascinating and disastrous.
Starting with the fascinating, Ellen Geer is a delicious, boozy Alexandra, who wakes up by crowing for her pills, her vodka and then her oxygen. She's a fabulous mess, vamping sloppily in satin lingerie or an outspoken red gown that she's neglected to fasten. Careening between savagery and helplessness, she always manages to pull off an imposing hauteur to fend off any impending disaster.
The same cannot be said for either the character or the actor playing her lover. As Chance, Richard Tyson starts out provocatively; he has a kind of bee-stung sensuality that seems right for the part. But he grows increasingly bizarre in the role as it demands more and more of him. When Chance really runs out of luck and his drug-taking gets out of hand, Tyson's performance blows up in his face. Ingesting pills, imbibing from a flask, he begins to display an encyclopedia of tics. His head darts like a curious monkey; he speeds it up and resembles a nervous parakeet.
Also suffering from emoting excess is Susan Angelo as the wronged Heavenly. She's always working herself up into a hyperventilating frenzy, and you have to wonder what, given the chance, her life with Chance would have been like. Certainly they would have had to get the rooms padded.
The cruel world is well represented by Heavenly's father, Boss Finley (Thad Geer), the sleazy politico, and her vicious brother, Tom Jr. (Kristofer Soul). They plot Chance's grotesque punishment for "ruining" Heavenly even as they publicly inflame the racial balance in St. Cloud. As a heckler who gets the stuffing kicked out of him for pointing out Boss Finley's hypocrisies, Brian Bosetta offers a refreshingly understated performance. Understatement is not what we look to Tennessee Williams for. But in this case, we're glad to see it.
"Sweet Bird of Youth," Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m. through July 20; beginning July 26, Saturdays only, 8 p.m. $12-$15 (ages 6-12, $5). (310) 455-3723. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.