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The learning curve

In a hellish show-biz scenario from the 1950s--squared--two desperate characters hide out in a swank small Southern beach town hotel. One is Alexandra Del Lago, an aging screen actress in full flight from the disastrous premiere of her comeback film. The other is Chance Wayne, a cruel, comely cabana masseuse she picked up in Palm Beach, who's driven her back to his hometown.

Wayne was a small-town talent who briefly tasted limelight in a Broadway chorus or two. Now he's not so young a man, still trading on his looks, convinced that del Lago could be his ticket to stardom.

These are the central characters in Tennessee Williams' drama

Sweet Bird of Youth , which purports to reveal what's left when an artist's dreams, talents and youth have all faded. That's clearly the case for Del Lago, as Dorothy Brown brings both a wounded, icy sophistication and a brief, commanding sensuality to the role. Since Chance still has a dream or two left, we watch them fight for the last remaining shreds of hope left between them.

Though Alexandra's character is a multifaceted study in self-pity, monomania and desire, Chance is the real challenge in this script. Here's the enigma: He has to have enough ambition and calculation to sleep, manipulate and blackmail his way to a life in film. But when the real sharks start to move, Chance doesn't have the talent or taste for blood. For all their pragmatism, his ethics haven't diverted him from his one true mission: redeeming the girl he "ruined" back home.

Plus he can't exactly be the smartest cookie. If he thinks that girl is waiting for him still--or imagines that a big screen has-been has any power left to start his film career--Chance has got a major disconnect or two from reality. He also can't recognize the danger from the big boys back home, and what they've pledged to do to him for defiling their icon of Southern womanhood.

How to keep such a walking contradiction in innocence, calculation, self-deception and profound naïveté believable and sympathetic? Frankly, I'm not certain. Director Tony Lea and actor James Miller appear to still be working on the question as well.

I can sympathize: Not only is the role a riddle, it's the key to Williams' script. But if Chance can't get by on his looks, neither can his actor and director skim the surface of his character. Without a finely-honed sense of increasing desperation--from a youth that's quickly leaving, and from several dreams that individually die before his eyes--Chance can seem little more than a fool. The more we see his responses as he is forcibly separated from his illusions one by one, the more we can invest in his character, and this production.

Believe me, I'm all for arts education. But after Flying Machine Theatre's

All My Sons , I'm still not certain paying audiences should be watching while it happens.

When not directing or acting in recent years, artistic director J. Chachula has gained an enviable reputation as a teacher. His school-year classes and summer intensives in the Meisner techniques have attracted notable regional talent of late. Still, this uneven production seems in places more a final student recital than the work of a seasoned theater company.

Playwright Arthur Miller's variation on the sins of the fathers is a caution for our military times, and John Honeycutt is commendable as the avuncular Joe, a patriarch presiding over a house of lies. Mary Rowland, clearly one of this region's finest actors, convinces here as Joe's wife, Kate, while newcomer Katie Poirier distinguishes herself as Ann, their son's girlfriend.

Still, when four of nine actors on stage--including one of the leads--have clearly not transcended student status, we see what happens when a company's laudable academic goals conflict with artistic ones.

Many of these students may well become good actors in time. I'd swear I witnessed one of them developing even as I watched. Still, their casting here in leading and supporting roles was obviously premature. However well intended, their work didn't meet the standards we've come to associate with Flying Machine.

We close this time with a leading question: What are the 10 best shows you saw--in the past decade?

On July 20, I will have served 10 years as a critic in this region. In the July 21 issue of the Independent, I plan on living to tell the tale. In that issue I'll look at the differences in live art and live art coverage after a thousand and one nights--plus change--in local theater. I'll also be releasing my top 10 list for that first 10 years. I've been working on it, off and on, for the past few months.

There are still a few slots left to fill. Got any suggestions? Drop me a line this week at byron@indyweek.com. EndBlock

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