Actor Finn Wittrock, 27, is in the midst of quite a run. A graduate of the prestigious Julliard drama program, the former Oakton Elementary School student won young audiences as the street-wise but soft-hearted Damon on “All My Children” in 2009. Now, after his absorbing portrayal of Happy Loman in Mike Nichols’ Tony Award-winning Broadway revival of “Death of a Salesman,” Mr. Wittrock stars as drifter Chance Wayne, opposite Academy Award nominee Diane Lane, in Tennessee Williams’ “Sweet Bird of Youth” at the Goodman Theatre.
The play begins with swelling white curtains filtering both the revealing morning light and the age difference between Chance and faded film star Alexandra Del Lago (Ms. Lane), whom Chance has collected at a party en route to his hometown of St. Cloud, Florida. Miss Del Lago, often called by her alias, Princess Kosmonopolis, moans with a hangover while Easter morning and its resurrection loom at the hotel window.
Chance Wayne loves Heavenly Finley, the daughter of wealthy “Boss” Thomas Finley, an unprincipled politician who rules the locals. Thomas does whatever must be to break the two up, managing to run Chance out of town. But Chance, now an aspiring actor, strides back into town with the temperamental Miss Del Lago, whom he sees as a meal ticket. Forcing Chance out of town again while he is tied to the notoriety of Miss Del Lago proves difficult, and fortunes hinge on the secrets that surrounded Heavenly while Chance was away.
Tennessee Williams draws from his life, sifting complicated encounters with drugs, alcoholism, promiscuous sex and the reality of living in a hypocritical Southern society. Chance thirsts for something he cannot acquire, and Princess runs from the shambles of something she did not have. The question is whether this older woman/younger man relationship and its complexities air an identifiable truth for today’s audience. Mr. Wittrock thinks so. “It is still very interesting and something we don’t talk about very often – the sex role reversal that happens in this play. A man being objectified as a sexual being.”
Of his arresting costar, Ms. Lane, Mr. Wittrock says, “She is so lovely.” Laughing, he continues, “and so hard to look at.” Though nominated for an Academy Award (“Unfaithful”), Emmy, Screen Actor’s Guild, and Golden Globe, Diane Lane,
47, had been away from the stage for 23 years before plunging into the role of the evaporating Del Lago. Her range and ability to drive this character are apparent from her first pain-induced growl beneath satin sheets at the opening of Act I. “Diane Lane is so gung ho,” says Mr. Wittrock. “So willing to jump head first into this difficult and scary play. I really admire her courage, and I learn so much from her every night, just being up there with her.”
Mr. Wittrock recently appeared on Broadway opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman in Mike Nichols’ celebrated “Death of a Salesman,” for which he won a 2012 Theatre World Award and the 2012 Clarence Derwent Award. On working with Mr. Nichols, Mr. Wittrock admits, “I owe [him] a lot. He found me off Broadway doing a Kushner play and brought me in for ‘Salesman.’” Mr. Wittrock finds similarity between sad souls Happy Loman and Chance Wayne. “Both [Arthur] Miller and [Tennessee] Williams wrote at the same time and the same themes but in very different ways. They address similar themes about young men who don’t know how to grow up. They don’t have the emotional capability of dealing with the darker parts of life. They are caught up in the American Dream so thoroughly that they are blinded by reality.
“[These plays] bring up the relationship with aging and what it means to be young,” continues Mr. Wittrock. “We’re still a culture that idolizes youth, and we don’t forgive someone for getting old, for going past it. I think those issues are still very much in the common consciousness, and they are still things that we are working out as a culture.”
Born in Massachusetts, Mr. Wittrock lived in the Berkshires until age 6, when his father, an actor and voice teacher specializing in the Linklater technique – used often in Shakespearean vocal expression – landed a job at DePaul University. The family set down roots in Evanston.
“I remember Oakton as being a beautiful building. I had a great time, a really good elementary school experience, and I remember taking a lot of music, drama and art,” says Mr. Wittrock, who also spent sixth grade at Chute Middle School before an abrupt departure for Los Angeles. He says he recalls summer camps at Evanston’s famed Piven Theatre Workshop before the family headed west,. “That was a lot of fun – lots of improv. Great people have come out of Piven. Chicago is a great place to come and do theatre in general,” he says, noting that Chicago has earned a reputation in the entertainment world for being down to earth. “It’s really all about the work and not about the extras and the frills, the glamour. They’re not about bright lights; they’re about doing good theatre.”
“Sweet Bird of Youth,” directed by Chicago native David Cromer, has been extended through Oct. 28. More information is available at 312-443-3800 or www.GoodmanTheatre.org.