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Sandpapered satinwood. Rich bourbon and the harsh smoke of dark Turkish cigarettes. Old velvet violently torn. Imagine Elizabeth Ashley’s fabulously ravaged rasp of a voice somehow made corporeal: These would be its textures.

Now imagine such a voice in the service of Tennessee Williams’ ripe, ruthless poetry. No, don’t imagine it; go experience it at the Lansburgh, where Ashley—a consummate Williams actress who is, ironically, best known for her stint on television’s Evening Shade—is giving a monumental performance opposite an equally exciting Michael Hayden, who shot to Broadway stardom as Billy Bigelow in Nicholas Hytner’s darkly brilliant Carousel revival. If the Shakespeare Theatre’s season finale isn’t the subtlest or best balanced of the year’s offerings, its two principals are still incandescent, and their heat makes for thrillingly visceral theater.

The play is Sweet Bird of Youth, a frustratingly uneven, impossibly feverish meditation on dreams and guilt and desperation, and Ashley is Alexandra del Lago, a rattled ruin of a movie star who’s fled Hollywood after the hideous failure of a comeback attempt. Vodka, pills, and hashish have blurred the memory but not blocked it entirely, so she’s taken to supplementing those intoxicants with a series of more animate distractions.

As the play opens, this magnificent wreckage has washed up in a stifling Gulf Coast metropolis, masquerading as “the Princess Kosmonopolis” and clinging to the latest of her gigolos—one Chance Wayne (Hayden), a small-time big-talker who grew up in said backwater and who has led the Princess there, intent on exploiting her faded glory for his own ends. They’re sequestered behind the louvered windows of a posh hotel suite—Michael Yeargan’s massive set somehow uses light and air to suggest oppression and claustrophobia—which actually serves both of their conflicting agendas: She’s looking for solace in anonymity, he’s looking for notoriety to rub in the faces of the townies who’ve sneered at his grandiose plans for stardom and squelched his romance with a powerful politician’s daughter.

But it quickly becomes clear that neither is going to be satisfied: Chance’s last trip through town landed his old flame in a peculiarly Southern Gothic sort of trouble and earned him the enmity of men who’d previously been content to find him laughable. When the hotel staff leaks news of his reappearance, the force of the local establishment’s anger will reach past its intended target to shake the Princess out of her self-absorption. One of the more interesting things about this oddly compelling play is that it’s the neurotic movie star, with all her chemical crutches, who turns out to be the bitterly pragmatic survivor. Chance, never having tasted any real measure of success, holds all the more fiercely to his Technicolor fantasies as their fulfillment becomes increasingly unlikely.

Ashley, with her unruly blond mane and her vast dark eyes and her distilled-sex voice, is very much the star of Michael Kahn’s lavish production; she’s as deft with the script’s acerbic humor as she is with its darkest horrors, and when she punctuates one of Williams’s marvelously poetic soliloquies with a large, languid gesture or gathers a claret-edged cloak of black satin dramatically about her, she’s both marking her own stage territory and confirming the Princess’ claim to stardom. Yes, she’s way over the top in the opening scene—but then her character is a hung-over amnesiac having a panic attack in a hotel room with a man she doesn’t recognize, so a little purple in the performance is to be expected. It’s in the final scenes that Ashley shows her real mettle; humbled but not broken, her Princess is a powerful mix of arrogance and fear, tenderness and regret and ruthless resolve. She’s altogether stunning.

Somehow, Hayden manages to match her fire in a role that, if anything, allows less room for errors of taste. It’s the kind of carefully layered, deeply sympathetic characterization that’s essential if the audience isn’t going to turn on Chance and laugh at the queasy, horrifying self-immolation he performs in the penultimate act.

Unwieldy and overwritten, Sweet Bird is Williams at his most lurid and obsessive—yet there are stark truths among the melodramatic excess, and despite one or two heavy-handed images and a largely inert supporting cast, Kahn’s taut staging uncovers them. Most especially, there’s an innocence—a heartbreaking neediness, a naked vulnerability—in Hayden’s performance that points up the profound tragedy of Chance’s destruction.

It’s not that this is a particularly noble character; it’s that he’s at once desperately conscious of the failure-stink that dogs him and resolutely blind to the fact that his dreams are the wrong dreams. He chases illusions that wouldn’t be worth catching—weren’t worth the price the Princess paid to catch them—so he can be judged worthy (by less-than-worthy men) of a “pure” woman already damaged by his own folly and her family’s hypocrisy.

Chance’s fierce, stupid, self-destructive determination, ironically enough, is exactly the kind we’d call inspiring in someone with loftier aims. We worship the Princess’s glamour and exult when her prospects are unexpectedly revived—and we find him contemptible? That, I think, is among the ugliest of the hypocrisies Williams wants us to acknowledge.

There is, come to think of it, precisely that kind of high-minded, praiseworthy willfulness at the center of Emma’s Child, a shamelessly manipulative, wildly overwritten, oddly structured, and sometimes pretentiously literary play that can be awfully moving despite its faults.

That’s partly because of the skill and heart the Horizons Theatre cast brings to the story, in which a childless couple agonizes over whether to follow through with a planned adoption when the infant is born with a severe disability. Caren Anton, particularly, brings a dignified grace and quiet resolve to the leading role, when as a barren woman who bonds with a motherless child she could easily have seemed saccharine. Makela Spielman, Karen Abromaitis, and especially Eric C. Peterson are engaging in supporting roles, and the production is beautifully designed and staged, too, with a minimum of fuss and frills to get in the way.

But what makes Emma’s Child appealing is the clarity and honesty with which playwright Kristine Thatcher asks audiences to split an ethical hair: What, she asks, is the responsibility of a parent offered the chance to “return” an imperfect child whence it came?

An unlikely question? Not when genetic tests offer even biological parents the chance to decline delivery of a baby who isn’t quite right. Where’s the threshold that demarcates the trivial disabilities from the profound? And should anyone have to justify a decision not to accept either?

Clearly, Thatcher wants us all to be brave and shoulder the burden. She front-loads her argument by presenting her couple with a living infant, not a first-trimester fetus, and tells us that though it has been struck with an especially grim disability—hydrocephalus, or water-head, which can mean severe brain damage, physical and mental retardation, and lifelong medical problems—it’s a particularly well-behaved and quiet child.

Thatcher’s tendency to quote the canon of Western white males is either pretentious or needlessly defensive, and her convoluted nonlinear narrative is more than a little confusing—you can’t ask the audience to keep checking the program to see if the current scene takes place two months before or three days after the previous one. But there’s a smart and elegant series of scene transitions that keeps the proceedings moving nicely. Above all, Emma’s Child isn’t overtly preachy, and it doesn’t condemn the father when it begins to look as though he’s not up to the challenge. That essential fairness, and the intriguing question Thatcher’s situation serves, make this a journey—yes, a blatantly sentimental one—worth taking.CP