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Drama at the Queen Anne

Beginning tonight, Sweet Bird of Youth will be presented at the Queen Anne Hotel.

It was soon after the new year began that Diane Bailey approached the Queen Anne Hotel on a scouting mission. The veteran actor and director was looking for just the right Victorian hotel in which she could bring to life the classic Tennessee Williams play Sweet Bird of Youth.

As she entered the historic old hotel at Sutter and Octavia, she knew she had found the perfect place. “I walked in and the lobby was so grand — with curtains framing the doorway into the parlor,” she says. “It was just so gorgeous. It looked so authentic to me.”

The public rooms of the Queen Anne Hotel are exuberantly Victorian.

The location would be everything for this production. For years, Bailey had been toying with the notion of presenting drama on location. At the beginning of her career, years ago in Los Angeles, she had seen the play “Tamara,” which was specifically written to be performed in an Italianate mansion. She was moved by the intimacy between the actors and the audience and by the sensation of being a part of the setting. “I still remember it,” she says. “It felt as if we were in a film experiencing the story with the characters.”

Later, as artistic director of the Sonoma County Repertory Theater, Bailey directed a variety of classic American plays in an intimate arena setting in which the audience surrounded the stage. So the notion of performing plays in an appropriate real-world setting stuck with her — along with the hope of breathing new life into classic works.

In the fall of 2008, she decided to take the plunge and create Theatre Anew — a theater company dedicated to producing established plays in unique venues. The audiences would be surrounded by environments appropriate to the settings the playwrights had envisioned — a church, a museum, a Victorian hotel — any venue, even a funeral parlor, that could immerse the audience in the world of the characters.

One of the plays high on Bailey’s list was “Sweet Bird of Youth,” which Tennessee Williams set in a grand Victorian hotel with a palm courtyard.

“It was a creative challenge to rejuvenate a classic American play to resonate with a contemporary audience,” Bailey says. “Restaged in a real Victorian hotel, it demands a more naturalistic presentation.”

Diane Bailey and Luke Woodruff play the leading roles.

The two main characters in “Sweet Bird of Youth” are Alexandra del Lago, a rattled has-been actress from Hollywood seeking to forget her descent into drugs, sex and obscurity, and her handsome masseur-gigolo, Chance Wayne. He takes her to his hometown and holes up in a hotel, hoping her money and faded glamour will provide one last desperate chance to make his own dreams of stardom come true. The play was originally performed on Broadway in 1959, with Paul Newman and Geraldine Page in the lead roles. In 1962, they starred in the film version.

In this production, Bailey decided to take on the lead role herself. “It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time,” she says. But she was always too young, since the female lead is 20 years older than her lover. “Now I am of the age,” Bailey laughs. “But it’s really precarious. If I wait another five years …”

Luke Woodruff appears as Chance Wayne — and just as rehearsals were getting under way, he was accepted into the master’s drama program at Harvard. He plans to attend this fall.

The play will be performed in the Queen Anne's salon.

The play takes place in the salon of the Queen Anne, with seating for 65 to 70 people.

“I expected it to be difficult to persuade the hotel owners,” Bailey says. “Often people don’t get it.” But Queen Anne manager Michael Wade was enthusiastic from the beginning. “And the setting was exactly what Tennessee Williams described,” she says, “with the audience voyeuristically engulfed inside the hotel with the characters as they discover their fate.”

Onsite rehearsals have been tucked in between the hotel’s buffet breakfast and its afternoon wine hour. “It just so happened that it fit in perfectly,” Bailey says. “We’re performing just before the heavy wedding season begins. Everything has fallen into place — the location, the actors, the timing.”

Theatre Anew will perform “Sweet Bird of Youth” on Fridays and Saturdays from March 19 to April 17 at the Queen Anne Hotel at 1590 Sutter Street. Tickets are $25; $15 for seniors and students.